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SAGE Publications

Thousand Oaks

New Delhi

Editorial arrangement and Introduction #

Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner 2001
Chapter 1 # Richard Polt 2001
Chapter 2 # Michael Richardson 2001
Chapter 3 # Nick Crossley 2001
Chapter 4 # Douglas Kellner 2001
Chapter 5 # Andrew Bowie 2001
Chapter 6 # Graeme Gilloch 2001
Chapter 7 # Patrick Baert 2001
Chapter 8 # Ann Branaman 2001
Chapter 9 # Bryan S. Turner 2001
Chapter 10 # Stephen Katz 2001
Chapter 11 # Victor J. Seidler 2001
Chapter 12 # Anthony Elliott 2001
Chapter 13 # Christina Howells 2001
Chapter 14 # Chris Rojek 2001
Chapter 15 # Kelly Oliver 2001
Chapter 16 # Caroline Bainbridge 2001
Chapter 17 # Mike Gane 2001
Chapter 18 # Paul Patton 2001

Chapter 19
Chapter 20
Chapter 21
Chapter 22
Chapter 23
Chapter 24
Chapter 25
Chapter 26
Chapter 27
Chapter 28
Chapter 29
Chapter 30
Chapter 31
Chapter 32
Chapter 33
Chapter 34

# John Armitage 2001

# Rob Shields 2001
# Kathleen Blamey 2001
# Jakob Arnoldi 2001
# Marcos Ancelovici and
Francis Dupuis-Deri 2001
# Bryan S. Turner 2001
# Geoffrey Gershenson and
Michelle Williams 2001
# Anthony Elliott 2001
# Nick Stevenson 2001
# Bridget Fowler 2001
# Barry Smart 2001
# Patricia Ticineto Clough and
Joseph Schneider 2001
# Sean Homer 2001
# Chris Rojek 2001
# Sarah Wright 2001
# Bryan S. Turner 2001

First published 2001

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Editors' Introduction
Anthony Elliott and Bryan S. Turner

1 Martin Heidegger
Richard Polt

2 Georges Bataille
Michael Richardson


3 Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Nick Crossley


4 Herbert Marcuse
Douglas Kellner


5 Theodor Adorno
Andrew Bowie


6 Walter Benjamin
Graeme Gilloch


7 Jurgen Habermas
Patrick Baert


8 Erving Goffman
Ann Branaman


9 Peter Berger
Bryan S. Turner




10 Michel Foucault
Stephen Katz


11 Jean-Francois Lyotard
Victor J. Seidler


12 Jacques Lacan
Anthony Elliott


13 Jacques Derrida
Christina Howells


14 Roland Barthes
Chris Rojek


15 Julia Kristeva
Kelly Oliver


16 Luce Irigaray
Caroline Bainbridge


17 Jean Baudrillard
Mike Gane


18 Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari

Paul Patton


19 Paul Virilio
John Armitage


20 Henri Lefebvre
Rob Shields


21 Paul Ricoeur
Kathleen Blamey


22 Niklas Luhmann
Jakob Arnoldi


23 Charles Taylor
Marcos Ancelovici and Francis Dupuis-Deri


24 Richard Rorty
Bryan S. Turner


25 Nancy Chodorow
Geoffrey Gershenson and Michelle Williams




26 Anthony Giddens
Anthony Elliott


27 Ulrich Beck
Nick Stevenson


28 Pierre Bourdieu
Bridget Fowler


29 Zygmunt Bauman
Barry Smart


30 Donna J. Haraway
Patricia Ticineto Clough and Joseph Schneider


31 Fredric Jameson
Sean Homer


32 Stuart Hall
Chris Rojek


33 Juliet Mitchell
Sarah Wright


34 Edward W. Said
Bryan S. Turner




# $%  

Discussions regarding the scope of this book took place over a lengthy
period of time and in various contexts: we carried out the initial planning
at cafes in Lygon Street, Carlton; negotiations commenced at the 1998 ASA
meetings in San Francisco; and the bulk of editorial work was conducted
through daily emails between Melbourne and Cambridge. Many people
have helped us in the preparation of the book. Anthony Moran deserves
special mention for assisting us with initial editing of the contributions. We
are grateful to Chris Rojek and to Jackie Grifn at Sage. We would also like
to thank the contributors for their commitment to this project, and for
responding to our various queries about earlier drafts. Others who contributed to the book, and whom we would like to thank, are Nicola
Geraghty, Caoimhe Elliott, and Eileen Richardson.
Anthony Elliott
Bryan S. Turner


Marcos Ancelovici is a PhD candidate in Political Science at Massachusetts

Institute of Technology, USA. He is co-author of L'Archipel identitaire (1997)
and a contributor to The Encyclopedia of Nationalism. His work has also
appeared in Citizenship Studies.
John Armitage is Principal Lecturer in Politics and Media Studies at the
University of Northumbria, UK. Among his edited works are Paul Virilio:
From Modernism to Hypermodernism and Beyond and Machinic Modulations:
New Cultural Theory and Technopolitics. His most recent editorships are
Economies of Excess and Virilio Live: Selected Interviews.
Jakob Arnoldi is a doctoral student at Goldsmiths College, London
University, where he is working on a dissertation on the complexication
of sense (of matter, time and others). He is currently editing a special
section of Theory Culture & Society on Niklas Luhmann (forthcoming).
Patrick Baert is currently Fellow at New Hall, Cambridge, and Director of
Studies in Social and Political Sciences at King's College, University of
Cambridge. He studied at the Vrije Universiteit Brussel and Oxford
University, where he obtained his D.Phil. He was a researcher at the
Institut de Sociologie of the Universite Libre de Bruxelles before taking
up his current post at Cambridge. He is the author of Time, Self and Social
Being (1992) and Social Theory in the Twentieth Century (1998), and editor of
Time in Contemporary Intellectual Thought (2000).
Caroline Bainbridge lectures in lm studies at Buckinghamshire Chilterns
University College. She recently completed a PhD on Luce Irigaray and
Film at the University of Shefeld. She has published articles on Luce
Irigaray and sexual difference and feminist theories of spectatorship as
University of Shefeld teaching materials and is currently working on a
range of publications related to her research.



Kathleen Blamey writes on modern European philosophy, and has translated into English various works of Paul Ricoeur.
Andrew Bowie is Professor of German at Royal Holloway, University of
London. His books include Aesthetics and Subjectivity: from Kant to Nietzsche
(1990), Schelling and Modern European Philosophy (1993), F.W.J. von Schelling.
`On the History of Modern Philosophy' (1994), From Romanticism to Critical
Theory. The Philosophy of German Literary Theory (1997), Manfred Frank,
The Subject and the Text (editor, 1997), and F.D.E Schleiermacher.
`Hermeneutics and Criticism' and Other Texts on Language and Interpretation
Ann Branaman is an Assistant Professor of Sociology at Florida Atlantic
University. Her recent publications include The Self and Society Reader
(2001) and The Goffman Reader (1997).
Patricia Ticineto Clough is Professor of Sociology, Women's Studies, and
Intercultural Studies at the Graduate Center, City University of New York.
Her books include Autoaffection: Unconscious Thought in the Age of
Teletechnology (2000), The End(s) of Ethnography: From Realism to Social
Criticism (1998), and Feminist Thought: Desire, Power, and Academic
Discourse (1994). Her essays have appeared in Sociological Quarterly and
Sociological Theory.
Nick Crossley is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Manchester,
UK. He has published two books, The Politics of Subjectivity: Between
Foucault and Merleau-Ponty (1994) and Intersubjectivity; the Fabric of
Social Becoming (1996), and is currently working on two further books,
Embodied Sociology: Habit, Identity and Desire and Making Sense of Social
Francis Dupuis-Deri teaches Political Science at Sainte-Marcelline College,
Montreal, Canada, and is afliated to the Research Group in International
Security (based at the universities of Montreal and McGill). He is co-author
of L'Archipel identitaire (1997), and has published in several journals,
including Citizenship Studies, Agone, and Etudes Internationales. He is currently working on a book on Jewish identity.
Anthony Elliott is Professor of Social and Political Theory at the University
of the West of England, where he is Research Director of the Faculty of
Economics and Social Science and Director of the Centre for Critical
Theory. He was an Australian Research Council Fellow between 1992
and 2000. His recent books include Subject To Ourselves (1996), Freud 2000
(editor, 1998), Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in Transition (2nd edn,
1999), The Mourning of John Lennon (1999), The Blackwell Reader in



Contemporary Social Theory (editor, 1999), and Psychoanalysis at its Limits (coeditor, 2000).
Bridget Fowler is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Glasgow. She is
author of The Alienated Reader: Women and Popular Romantic Literature (1991)
and Pierre Bourdieu and Cultural Theory (1997).
Mike Gane is Reader in Sociology in the Department of Social Sciences,
Loughborough University. He has written widely on social theory, specializing in the French tradition, and his most recent book is Jean Baudrillard:
in Radical Uncertainty (2000). He is working on a book titled French Social
Theory: From Positivism to Postmodernism.
Geoffrey Gershenson is in the Department of Political Science at the
University of California, Berkeley. He is writing a dissertation on
Rousseau's political thought.
Graeme Gilloch is author of Myth and Metropolis: Walter Benjamin and the
City (1996) and Walter Benjamin (forthcoming).
Sean Homer is Lecturer in Psychoanalytic Studies at the University of
Shefeld. He is the author of Fredric Jameson: Marxism, Hermeneutics,
Postmodernism (1998). He is co-editing Fredric Jameson: A Critical Reader,
and writing a book on psychoanalysis and cultural theory.
Christina Howells is Professor of French at the University of Oxford and
Fellow of Wadham College. She is author of Sartre's Theory of Literature and
Sartre: the Necessity of Freedom, and editor of The Cambridge Companion to
Sartre and a collection of essays on Sartre's literature. Her most recent
publication is Derrida: Deconstruction from Phenomenology to Ethics and
she is currently working on contemporary French women philosophers.
Her research interests centre on Continental philosophy, literary theory,
and modern French literature and thought.
Stephen Katz is Associate Professor of Sociology at Trent University,
Ontario. He is the author of Disciplining Old Age: the Formation of
Gerontological Knowledge (1996), and several articles and book chapters on
critical aging studies and the sociology of the body.
Douglas Kellner is George Kneller Chair in the Philosophy of Education at
UCLA and is author of many books on social theory, politics, history, and
culture, including Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis of Marxism, Critical Theory,
Marxism, and Modernity, Jean Baudrillard: From Marxism to Postmodernism
and Beyond, Postmodern Theory: Critical Interrogations (co-author), Television
and the Crisis of Democracy, The Persian Gulf TV War, Media Culture, and The
Postmodern Turn (co-author).



Kelly Oliver is Associate Professor of Philosophy and Women's Studies at

SUNY Stony Brook. She is the author of Beyond Recognition: Witnessing
Subjectivity (2000), Subjectivity Without Subjects: From Abject Fathers to
Desiring Mothers (1998), Family Values: Subjects Between Nature and Culture
(1997), Womanizing Nietzsche: Philosophy's Relation to `the Feminine' (1995),
and Reading Kristeva: Unraveling the Double-Bind (1993). She has edited
several books, including Ethics, Politics and Difference in Kristeva's
Writings (1993), and The Portable Kristeva (1998).
Paul Patton is Associate Professor of Philosophy at The University of
Sydney. He translated Deleuze's Difference and Repetition (1994), edited
Deleuze: A Critical Reader (1996), and is the author of Deleuze and the
Political (2000). He has published articles on post-structuralism, social
and political theory in a number of journals including Substance, Man
and World, Political Studies, Theory and Event, and Parallax.
Richard Polt is Professor of Philosophy at Xavier University, Cincinnati.
He is the author of Heidegger: An Introduction, and has translated
Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics in collaboration with Gregory
Michael Richardson is author of Georges Bataille (1994), and editor of
Georges Bataille: Essential Writings (1998).
Chris Rojek is Professor of Sociology and Culture at the Theory, Culture
and Society Centre, Nottingham Trent University. He is the author of
several books on leisure, culture, and social theory, including Ways of
Escape (1993) and Leisure and Culture (2000).
Joseph Schneider is Professor of Sociology at Drake University. He is coauthor of Giving Care, Writing Self: A `New' Ethnography (2000) and Deviance
and Medicalization: From Badness to Sickness (1990).
Victor Jeleniewski Seidler is Professor of Social Theory in the Department
of Sociology, Goldsmiths College, University of London. He has written
widely in the areas of social theory, philosophy, ethics, and gender studies.
His most recent work includes Unreasonable Men: Masculinity and Social
Theory (1994), Recovering the Self: Morality and Social Theory (1995), Man
Enough: Embodying Masculinities (1997), and Shadows of the Shoah: Jewish
Identity and Belonging (2000).
Rob Shields is Associate Professor of Sociology and Anthropology, and
a member of the Institute for Interdisciplinary Studies, at Carleton
University, Ottowa. He is the author of Places on the Margin: Alternative
Geographies of Modernity (1989) and Henri Lefebvre: A Critical
Introduction (1999). He is editor of Lifestyle Shopping: The Subject of



Consumption (1991), Cultures of Internet (1996), and co-editor of Social

Engineering (1996).
Barry Smart is Professor of Sociology at the University of Portsmouth. He is
author of Modern Conditions, Postmodern Controversies (1992), Postmodernity
(1993), and Facing Modernity: Ambivalence, Reexivity and Morality (1999).
He is editor of Resisting McDonaldization (1999) and co-editor of Handbook of
Social Theory (2000).
Nick Stevenson is Lecturer in Sociology at the University of Shefeld.
His books include Culture, Ideology and Socialism: Raymond Williams and
E.P. Thompson (1995), Understanding Media Cultures (1995), and The
Transformation of the Media: Globalization, Morality and Ethics (1999).
Bryan S. Turner is Professor of Sociology at the University of Cambridge.
He has held professorial positions at Flinders University (19828),
University of Utrecht (1988-90), University of Essex (19903), and Deakin
University (1993-8). His research interests include the sociology of citizenship, medical sociology, and social theory. He is the editor of the journal of
Citizenship Studies, co-editor of Body & Society, and co-editor of the Journal of
Classical Sociology. He recently edited Max Weber: Critical Responses (three
volumes) and Orientalism: Early Sources (12 volumes). His most recent
publication was Classical Sociology (1999). He is currently working on
two projects: a study of civil society and social capital in the United
Kingdom, and the culture and politics of postwar generations.
Michelle Williams is in the Department of Sociology at the University of
California, Berkeley. She is writing a dissertation on the Communist Party
in South Africa and Kerala, India.
Sarah Wright is Lecturer in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the
University of Hull. Her research interests include lm studies, modern
Spanish literature, psychoanalysis, and literature. She is the author of
The Trickster-Function in the Theatre of Garca Lorca (2000).



roles in Contemporary Social Theory

provides a comprehensive guide
to the leading intellectuals and
theorists in social theory today. The
volume comprises critical discussion of a
variety of thinkers that have dominated
social and political debate in recent decades. In disciplinary sweep, these gures include sociologists, historians,
philosophers, psychoanalysts, and political theorists. Yet the contributions of
these individual gures to contemporary
social theory consistently illuminate the
dangers to knowledge and freedom of
limiting reection on society and the
social to any particular discipline. The
leading gures in contemporary intellectual life
Jurgen Habermas,
Jacques Derrida, Julia Kristeva, Fredric
Jameson, Richard Rorty, Luce Irigaray,
and Michel Foucault propose interdisciplinary studies on the self, society, and
The motivation leading us to put
together this book has been a growing
awareness of crucial conceptual and institutional transformations taking place in
recent years. During the last two decades
in particular, many dominant perspectives
in Anglo-American philosophy and social
theory have been subjected to sustained

critique, dismantling and reconstruction.

Structuralist and post-structuralist theory
has been energetically deconstructed and
appraised, with new constellations of
knowledge, including deconstruction,
postmodernism, and postfeminism, evolving. Traditions of thought that previously had been marginal or ignored,
such as psychoanalysis and hermeneutics,
have come to exert a powerful inuence
across the social sciences. There has also
been a proliferation of new discourses
and social theories, including structuration theory, postcolonialism, Queer
theory, postfeminism, as well as suggestive research programmes such as the
theory of world risk society associated in
particular with Ulrich Beck (see Seidman,
1998; Delanty, 1999; Elliott, 1999a; Turner,
Undoubtedly these developments in
social thought have been for many people
at once daunting and exhilarating: daunting, since the major traditions of classical
social theory appear profoundly strained
in the face of core institutional transitions
now sweeping the globe; exhilarating,
since their implications and consequences
are not only intellectually important, but
point to new possibilities for radical social
and political change. Of key signicance


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here are dramatic changes to the contemporary global order. Among these
changes are to be counted the intensication of globalization; transnational
corporations advancing economic interdependence by communication technology; the techno-industrialization of war;
the rapid explosion of new information
technologies; the proliferation of identitypolitics; and the rise of issues relating
to lifestyle, intimacy, sexuality and the
In view of these intellectual and institutional changes, there is a pressing need
for sustained critical discussion of both
the coherence and dispersion of contemporary social theory in the hands of its
leading practitioners. Proles in Contemporary Social Theory represents an attempt
to meet this need. The authors contributing to this volume are highly distinguished international social theorists,
sociologists, and philosophers; all of the
Proles are published here for the rst
time. To facilitate the reader-friendly
design of the book, each chapter provides
a biographical overview and situates the
work of social thinkers in relation to various schools of thought; and each presents
both a detailed exposition and critique
of the individual gures. Each chapter
concludes with a comprehensive bibliography of the thinker's major works,
along with details of secondary references.
As a result, Proles in Contemporary Social
Theory is a state-of-the-art account of the
In this introduction we shall sketch a
backcloth for the critical discussion of
individual thinkers that follow. Our aim
is limited. In summarizing some of the
major trends in contemporary social theory, we shall chart key themes and traditions that animate the work of leading
theorists, of intellectual movements, and
of interpretative approaches. We shall
divide our commentary around three
areas, or sets of debates, in contemporary
theory: subjectivity, psychoanalysis, and
feminism; modernity, postmodernization,
globalism; and Marxism, neo-Marxism,
and post-Marxism.


Amid the proliferating topics that preoccupy social theorists today, one question stands out as of core importance:
that is, the question of the constitution of
the human subject. The issues at stake in
the contemporary deconstruction and
reconstruction of subjectivity are profound. Some of the key concerns that
have crystallized in recent years include
the following: the psychological, social,
and cultural forms through which individuals are constructed as subjects; the
complex, contradictory ways in which
individuals dene themselves as autonomous, self-legislating, and rational; the
emotional investments that individuals
come to have in their identities and
communities; and the impact that selfconstitution carries for understanding the
reproduction, disruption, and transformation of society and culture.
It was not until the 1970s, among social
scientists of various persuasions, that
human subjectivity fell within a space of
more considered reection and critical
practice. While the project of the decentring of the subject had been at the heart
of structuralist theory for several decades,
the emergence of new discursive orientations concerned with the process of subjectivization began where structuralists
left off. Following in the wake of Freud,
Nietzsche, and Heidegger, a number of
leading gures in contemporary intellectual life reconsidered afresh the intersection of psyche and culture. Here the
post-structuralist positions of Lacan,
Foucault, Derrida, Deleuze, Guattari, and
Lyotard are central. These theorists, in
various ways, promote interest in the
character of human subjectivity, in the
crisis of representation, in the relational
nature of human experience, and in the
unconscious pattern of oppositions
(norm/pathology, masculine/feminine,
majority/minority) that fuse to connect
an identity of reason and reality.
Psychoanalytic theory, and especially
Lacan's `return to Freud', has been central


to the post-structuralist task of decentring

and deconstructing the subject, since
Freudian thought profoundly recongures the relation of self and Other.
Psychoanalysis has of course also been
deployed by post-structuralists to question the positioning of the theorist,
particularly the male theorist; to debunk
via notions of projection and transference the link between the One who
sees All and programmes of liberation;
and to warn of the idealizations and illusions governing modernist dreams of
rationality, objectivity, and certitude.
If psychoanalysis has loomed large in
the language of post-structuralism, it has
played an equally central role in disciplines from sociology to political science
to cultural studies. Why this impact?
What can psychoanalysis offer social
theory? In the writings of Herbert
Marcuse, Theodor Adorno, Anthony
Giddens, Paul Ricoeur, and Cornelius
Castoriadis, to name only a few, psychoanalysis is engaged with critically to analyse afresh the symbolic forms through
which individuals represent the social
world internally. Through psychoanalysis,
social theorists are able to explore, question and critique the rich, imaginary organization of psychic reality and ultimately
of selfhood (Elliott, 1999b). Of key importance here is the clash or gap between
consciousness, rationality, and agency on
the one hand, and unconscious desire,
fantasy, and emotion on the other. The
notion that conscious awareness is sometimes subsumed within, or swamped by,
unconscious forces of the mind has been
central to the study of the self and social
organization alike. Here the debate over
repression is particularly important, as is
current concern with the ways in which
globalization, postmodernization, and
privatization may be adding another
repressive layer to subjective experience
in the late modern world (Whitebook,
1995; Castoriadis, 1997).
Perhaps more than anywhere else, psychoanalysis has made its biggest impact in
feminist theory and gender studies. In
broad terms, psychoanalysis has been

adopted by feminists not as a supplement

to, or displacement of, the history of
sexuality and gender studies, but as questioning them, as containing the possibility
of a different way of understanding gender oppression. In this area of debate as in
others, psychoanalysis means different
things to different people. In AngloAmerican object-relations theory, and
particularly in the work of feminists such
as Juliet Mitchell and Nancy Chodorow,
feminism engages with Freudian and
post-Freudian thought to trace the gender
framing of interpersonal relationships
with particular emphasis on the preOedipal mother/child bond. French poststructuralist feminists, including Julia
Kristeva and Luce Irigaray, take their cue
more from Lacanian psychoanalysis.
More specically in this psychoanalytic
context, masculinity and femininity are
viewed as subjective, sexual positions;
the power of the symbolic order is to x
gender positions so securely that it
becomes almost impossible to notice the
emotional investment that individuals
have in the patriarchal regulation of
sexual difference. What has come to be
called post-Lacanian feminist theory
plays with new ways of guring sexual
difference and with alternative possibilities for reimagining gender. The pathbreaking contributions to these debates
in feminism and psychoanalysis are
discussed and debated in several contributions to this book.
Bewitched by the discourse of the
modernity/postmodernity debate, social
theory throughout the 1990s became
obsessed with the idea that we are living
in new times, by thoughts of an alternative
and distinct form of social organization
from modernity. The one thing that
emerged from this debate throughout a
series of controversies in which ambivalence, ambiguity, and indeterminancy
reigned supreme is that a number of


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core distinctions operate from within the

languages of the modern and the postmodern. Postmodernism is distinguished
from modernism, above all, as an aesthetic
style or cultural movement principally
in the plastic arts and architecture, but in
painting, literature and cinema also. In
this reading, postmodernism represents
an aesthetic reection upon modernism,
its ambitions and limits.
Postmodernity, by contrast, designates
a change of mood at the level of interpersonal relationships, social practices, and
modern institutions (see Kellner, 1988).
A bafing variety of critical terms
`postmodern condition', `postindustrial
society', `global age', `consumer society',
`postmodern scene' have been deployed
to denote a break with modernity, to
announce the end of history and the
social, and to welcome the collapse of
European or Western global hegemony.
Various authors in this book sketch out
the complex, contradictory ways in
which the postmodern impulse has been
distinguished from social and cultural
forms characteristic of modernism. For
some, an inadequate level of specication
has dogged the deployment of these
terms, while for others the discourse of
modernity and postmodernism has produced illumination. What is of interest
for us in the present context are the lines
of intersection between modern and postmodern social theory; there are, as
Bauman (1990, 1997) has argued, high
levels of envelopment, containment,
translation, and incorporation in the interacting forms of the modern and the postmodern. The organizing frame for this
debate is, following Bauman's formulation, postmodernity as modernity without
illusions. The postmodern order recognizes the fragile and contested nature of
modern living, and directly embraces
plurality, ambiguity, contingency, and
ambivalence. Yet the postmodern does
not eclipse the modern. Modern and
postmodern orders cross and tangle
sometimes across different forms of
life, and often within identities and

A similar ambiguity is traceable at the

level of postmodern theory itself. On the
one hand, a wide range of social theorists
from Foucault to Baudrillard to Derrida
came to be designated as `postmodern',
as having broken with the oppressive
hierarchies of classical social theory, as
having inaugurated new theoretical constructs designed to assault elitist culture.
On the other hand, many of these same
theorists came to reject the postmodern
label as relevant to their own conceptual
and political endeavours. Proles in
Contemporary Social Theory provides new
sources of insight into both the distinctiveness of, and interconnections between,
postmodern social theorists. While it is
indeed clear that there is no one approach
to postmodern theory, there are nevertheless a number of core themes that run
through the writings of radical analysts
of the postmodern cultural condition.
The interrogation of traditional conceptions of reality, truth, and justice; the
ongoing decentring and deconstruction
of human subjectivity; the reexive subversion of epistemological closure; the
levelling of low and high culture; the raising of passion, affect, desire, sensation,
bodies, erotic ow, difference, and power
as sites for radical critique: these themes
are central to the postmodernist political
project. The distinctive inections these
themes are given in the work of authors
including Jean-Francois Lyotard, Donna
Haraway, Luce Irigaray, Paul Virilio,
Fredric Jameson, Zygmunt Bauman, and
Richard Rorty are discussed in the contributions that follow.
The conditions of this widening of postmodernization are primarily historical,
and relate principally to globalization. It
has often been argued that globalization
does not mark a critical break between
the epochs of modernity and postmodernity; this line of commentary
tends to stress that global interconnections
had their origins centuries ago in the
expansion of the world economy and the
rise of the modern state (see Wallerstein,
1974). However there are now strong
indications that there has been a sudden


institutional and cultural enlargement of

the process of globalization, involving
transnational economic relations and
instantaneous electronic communications;
the freeing of nancial markets and
capital transfers; dense webs of regional,
national, and international political processes which reach beyond the control of
any nation state; the development of a
world-wide military order, and the
techno-industrialization of war. One can
detect such an emphasis upon the deepening and stretching of social relations and
institutions across the world market in
some recent approaches within sociology,
politics, philosophy, and cultural studies.
Anthony Giddens, for example, has
stressed the organizational predominance
of global processes in everything from
self-identity and intimacy to class relationships and business cycles. Ulrich
Beck also suggests that social, cultural,
economic, and political activity has
become world-wide in scope, connecting
these developments to risks, uncertainties,
and hazards of the modernization process
in advanced industrial countries. In
this framework, globalization is a doubleedged phenomenon, producing risk, uncertainty, and fragmentation on the one
side, and interdependence, co-operation,
and dialogue on the other.
In the postmodern cultural context
within which self and social activity
evolves, one of the salient features of globalization is that it commands the social
imaginary and imagination as never
before. For Baudrillard, the global condition of postmodern experience is that of
simulation; people are now caught up
in an endless play of media images
and spectacles, mesmerized by the encircling signs of multinational capital,
transxed by the obliteration of `reality'
and the growing allure of `hyperreality'.
The debate over the impact of postmodernization and globalism upon our
psychic landscape has established a
plurality of alternative positions, as
many of the contributions to this book
make clear. For some social theorists,
including Baudrillard, Jameson, Deleuze,

and Guattari, the postmodern global

system outstrips the capacities of any
self-understanding, perception, reexivity. The result is a new fragmentation of
experience, erosion of core distinctions
between mind and world or self and
society, and a schizophrenic shattering of
the self. Here personal and cultural life
becomes disarmingly episodic, fracturing,
inconsequential, and eeting. Having set
out the psychic stakes of postmodernity in
this way, such theorists tend to argue for
a new politics, described variously as
schizoanalysis, cognitive mapping, and
the like. Though controversial, many
commentators have argued that it is
very difcult to derive a coherent political critique from such versions of
social theory. For other social theorists,
however, postmodernity does not
threaten such discontinuity; the postmodern, on the contrary, promotes sensitivity to experience, difference, otherness,
and everyday needs and concerns.
.   / .   
/ . 
Social theory was, and remains, sensitive
to the external social and political environment within which it operates. It would
be remarkable if this were not the case, in
the sense that social theory must be a
reection on the period in which it is set,
reecting the major political and economic transformations of the epoch.
Marxism has been a profound and persistent inuence on twentieth-century social
theory. In putting together Proles, we have
attempted to illustrate and explore some of
these inuences through the work of
Theodor Adorno, Jean Baudrillard,
Walter Benjamin, Fredric Jameson, Stuart
Hall, Henri Lefebvre, Jean-Francois
Lyotard, and Herbert Marcuse. Indeed
probably every social theorist in this collection has been, at some stage, inuenced
by either Marx or Marxism.
The twentieth century saw major
changes in the character of Marxist social
theory. The critical theorists of the


$%&'(  '# )$(

Franfurt School (represented here in particular by Marcuse and Adorno)

attempted to develop Marxism as a general critical theory of modern society
through an examination of the relationships between psychoanalysis (especially
Freud) and critical theory; the changing
character of culture in capitalism (for
instance through Adorno's studies of
jazz); and the social causes of fascism.
They also developed a more sophisticated
view of epistemology and the sociology
of knowledge. These re-evaluations
of Marxism produced a complex and
far-reaching body of social theory that,
for example, continues in the work of
Marxist social theory was also inuenced by the discovery of the Paris
Manuscripts of the young Marx, which
led anthropologists and sociologists to
reconsider the humanism of Marx, his
philosophical anthropology, and his
understanding of alienation. This revival
of interest in the early Marx was also
stimulated in France by a brilliant interpretation of Hegel by Alexandre Kojeve
that drew attention to the importance of
Hegel for Marx, and the signicance of
Hegel's view of community in relation to
the state. The revival of interest in the
themes of alienation and reication was
also dependent on the work of the young
Hungarian scholar Georg Lukacs whose
History and Class Consciousness came to
have an enduring relevance to the understanding of reication, ideology, and critical theory. The discovery of the young
Marx provided some of the philosophical
framework for the development of neoMarxism in Europe. The phenomenology
of the young Marx who was inuential in
the development, for example, of the
sociology of Peter Berger and Thomas
Luckmann, was eventually challenged
by the growth of structuralism which, in
the case of Marxism, was developed by
Louis Althusser who seriously questioned
whether Marxist humanism was scientic,
and attempted to develop Marxism as a
structuralist theory of the economy, especially the capitalist mode of production.

Althusserian Marxism came to have a

signicant impact on the structuralism of
Foucault, on the psychoanalytical work of
Lacan, and on Lyotard, as well as feminist
social theorists.
These developments in Marxist theory
were particularly important in France
where Lyotard and Baudrillard developed
their perspectives on contemporary
society through the framework of Marx's
critique of capitalism. The events of 1968
were an important turning point in social
theory, and many young radical scholars
became disillusioned with the platform of
the French Communist Party. This disillusionment with communism came to inuence their views of Marxism as a
theory, and Baudrillard for example in
his analysis of consumerism came to reject
Marxism. The crisis of the Soviet Union in
the late 1980s reinforced the sense of alienation from organized communism that
began with an earlier generation's
response to the Soviet invasion of
Hungary , the Solidarity movement in
Poland, and the Afghan war. As communism did not appear to offer any solutions
to capitalism, the validity of Marxism as a
social theory became a major issue. With
the nal collapse of the Soviet Union in
198992, there was a widespread sense of
the failure of both communism and
Marxism, and the sense of failure brought
many social theorists to consider the
idea of post-Marxism (alongside postmodernism, posthistory and postfeminism). There was a general sense that the
n de siecle had created an environment
of general re-appraisal and re-evaluation
of the legacy of the twentieth century that
expressed itself through the notion of
This burial of Marxism will undoubtedly turn out to be premature, if not
adolescent. Marxism still provides an
important general theory of society that
combines economics, politics, and sociology, and offers a critical reection on
basic dimensions of society equality,
justice and ideology being obvious
illustrations (see, for example, Eagleton,
1990 and Jameson, 1990). As Proles


demonstrates, it is impossible to understand twentieth-century philosophy, economics, politics, and sociology without a
thorough grounding in Marxist theory.
Marxism has also had an important contribution to make to the evolution of
feminism, psychoanalysis, and cultural
studies. Marxism will continue to be
important because it provides at least
one possibility of combining moral analysis with social science, and because it profoundly questions the division between
facts and values. It has as a result
made a signicant contribution to postcolonialism and to the critique of
Orientalism. As it becomes clear that
the market is not a solution to all of the
problems of the twenty-rst century, one
can feel very condent that there will be a
general revival of interest in, as well as
further development of, Marxist social
In attempting to select social theorists for
inclusion in Proles in Contemporary Social
Theory, we have been faced with an embarrassment of riches. Our difculty has been
the question: who can we leave out? Our
main aim has been to secure some balance
in our representation of social theory.
In our commentary on Marxism, for
example, it is clear that generally speaking
Marxism has been far more inuential
in Europe than in North America a
difference that reects the different
history of socialism in Europe and
the United States. We have attempted
to give some representation of both
American and European social theorists,
recognizing that the empirical traditions
of American sociology and political
science have not favoured social theory
as such.
We have also attempted to achieve
some balance in our selection from various disciplines, especially sociology,
anthropology, philosophy, and psychoanalysis. We have also sought to recognize
that social theory as such is essentially

interdisciplinary, and the theorists whom

we have included have made extensive
contributions across many elds.
Our principle criterion of selection has,
however, been that the social theorist must
be relevant to contemporary theory. We
have attempted to explore those social
theories that are currently making a
major impact on the analysis of modern
culture, society, and politics. We have
attempted to avoid being simply fashionable, while still attempting to represent
contemporary developments. The theorists included in Proles are generally
people who have been active and inuential in the second half of the twentieth
century, and whom we anticipate will
continue to be inuential in the twentyrst century.
The chapters that follow underscore that a
uid diversication of research agendas
is productive for contemporary social
theory. Such diversication, emerging
from traditions of thought ranging from
feminism and psychoanalysis to poststructuralism and postmodernism, engenders new modes for conceptualizing a
bewildering array of social phenomena,
cultural artifacts, and theoretical discourses in the contemporary epoch. It
follows that a critical social theory
responsive to these interdisciplinary positions and topics should regard the
demand for difference (psychological,
social, cultural, political, and historical)
as a promising starting point for mapping
the terrain of postmodern culture and
society. In our view, the primacy of concern for cultural diversity and social
divergence in much current social theory
emerges not simply from epistemological
discontinuities, but from a new social context of globalization, transnational corporations, virtualized communication
interaction, individualization, democratization, and the like. However, a critical
social theory alert to the changing nature
of self and society must be based as


$%&'(  '# )$(

much on identity or identication as on

difference and otherness, and this necessarily requires a radical engagement in
political debate and moral concerns. It is
our hope that the reader will nd Proles
in Contemporary Social Theory a useful and
instructive guide to both the parameters
of social-theoretical trends and of the
nature of social critique.

Bauman, Z. (1990) Modernity and Ambivalence.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Bauman, Z. (1997) Postmodernity and Its Discontents.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Castoriadis, C. (1997) World in Fragments. Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press.

Delanty, G. (1999) Social Theory in a Changing World.

Cambridge: Polity Press.
Eagleton, T. (1990) The Ideology of the Aesthetic.
Oxford: Blackwell.
Elliott, A. (1999a) The Blackwell Reader in
Contemporary Social Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Elliott, A. (1999b) Social Theory and Psychoanalysis in
Transition: Self and Society from Freud to Kristeva.
London: Free Association Books.
Jameson, F. (1990) Late Marxism. London: Verso.
Kellner, D. (1988) `Postmodernism as social theory:
some challenges and problems', Theory, Culture and
Society, 5 (2-3): 23970.
Seidman, S. (1998) Contested Knowledge. Oxford:
Turner, B.S. (2000) The Blackwell Companion to Social
Theory. Oxford: Blackwell.
Wallerstein, I. (1974) The Modern World-System. New
York: Academic Press.
Whitebook, J. (1995) Perversion and Utopia.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Martin Heidegger



artin Heidegger, one of the

most signicant philosophers
of the twentieth century, lived
the life of a provincial German academic,
interrupted by an unsuccessful foray into
political action at the beginning of the
Nazi regime. Heidegger was born on 26
September 1889 to a modest family in
the Swabian town of Messkirch (his father
was the sexton of St Martin's Catholic
Church). After brief experiences as a
Jesuit seminarian in 1909 and a student
of theology, he devoted himself to philosophy, nishing his graduate studies at
the University of Freiburg in 1915. He
was married in 1917, and served in the
military as a noncombatant in 1918.
From 1919 to 1923 he was the primary
assistant to Edmund Husserl, the leader
of the phenomenological movement, at
the University of Freiburg. Heidegger
taught philosophy at the University of
Marburg from 1923 to 1928, and at
Freiburg from 1928 to 1945. His rst and
greatest book, Being and Time, appeared in
1927 and quickly made him famous.
Under the National Socialist regime,
Heidegger rose to the position of rector

of the University of Freiburg in April

1933 and joined the Nazi party in
May 1933. He stepped down from the
rectorship in April 1934 after administrative conicts with faculty and students,
but maintained his party membership.
Refusing an invitation to teach in
Berlin (Heidegger, 1981), he remained
in Freiburg. After the Second World War,
a `denazication' programme forced
him to retire; however, in 1950 he regained the right to teach as an emeritus,
and he delivered some lecture courses
during the subsequent decade. Heidegger
died on 26 May 1976 in Freiburg and
was buried in the family plot in
Despite the great volume and range of
Heidegger's work, it is best understood as
a response to a single question, the question of `Being' (das Sein, not to be confused
with das Seiende `that which is', `entities',
or `beings'). The question of Being has two
dimensions. First, what does it mean (for
any entity) to be? Although this is a classic
metaphysical question, Heidegger argues
that metaphysics and all its scientic offshoots have long taken the answer to the
question for granted: Being is assumed to
be equivalent to presence. (Interpreters of
Heidegger thus often use the expression


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

`metaphysics of presence', referring to

metaphysical systems that are built on
the traditional assumption that to be is to
be present.) Second, the question of what
it means to be presupposes a prior question: how is it that we human beings
understand what it means to be? What
enables Being to have meaning for us, or
be given to us, at all? This problem
involves an investigation of human beings
as Dasein (`Being-there') that is, the
entity that is distinguished by its ability
to understand Being.
Heidegger's main account of Dasein is
presented in Being and Time (Heidegger,
1962, 1996a; for closely related lecture
courses, see Heidegger, 1982, 1985). Being
and Time is a work of hermeneutical, phenomenological ontology. That is, it
describes major phenomena that form
part of both everyday life and extraordinary experiences; these phenomena are
subjected to an ever-deepening interpretation in regard to their fundamental modes
of Being. Heidegger interprets Dasein as a
radically temporal and historical entity,
whose way of Being involves essential
ties to the past, the future, and the present.
First, we essentially have a past, or are
`thrown': we nd ourselves in the position
of already having an identity and being in
a particular situation. (This `facticity' is
made manifest to us in various ways
through our moods.) We are unable to
remake ourselves and gain complete control over the basis of our existence;
instead, we must take up the task of existing on the basis of who we already are.
Second, we are essentially `projecting'
future possibilities not necessarily
through explicit planning, but simply by
pursuing options for behaviour. In terms
of these possibilities, we understand ourselves and our surroundings. Third,
thanks to these dimensions of past and
future, we are able to inhabit a present, a
`there' or `world' within which entities can
become accessible or `unconcealed' for us
as having various sorts of signicance.
Dasein is essentially `Being-in-the-world'
that is, we are not isolated minds, but
engaged participants in a realm of

meaning within which we encounter all

sorts of beings.
Being and Time is incomplete. As it
stands, it consists of an interpretation of
Dasein as temporal Being-in-the-world.
Heidegger had also hoped to show, however, that time is the `horizon' for Being
that is, our essential temporality enables
us to understand what it means to be.
This would undercut the traditional
assumption that Being is equivalent to
presence, or more precisely `presence-athand' (Vorhandenheit). Presence-at-hand is
only one mode of Being, which is made
available by only one dimension of
temporality (the present). Other modes
of Being include `readiness-to-hand'
(Zuhandenheit, the Being of `equipment'
or useful things) and Being-in-the-world
(the Being of Dasein). Heidegger planned
to use this analysis in a `destruction'
(Destruktion) or `deconstruction' (Abbau)
of traditional metaphysics, in order to prepare for a new and richer interpretation of
Being in general.
However, Heidegger abandoned the
project of Being and Time, because he
decided that it was itself excessively
indebted to the tradition. His later work
(from around 1930) turns to more uid
and poetic evocations of the happening in
which Being comes to have meaning for
Dasein. From the mid-1930s Heidegger
dubs this happening das Ereignis, `the
event of appropriation' or `enowning'
(Heidegger, 1999). In enowning, both
Being and Dasein come into their own
within a unique historical `site for the
moment'. The task of human beings is to
found this site and enter properly into the
condition of Dasein by `sheltering the truth
of Being' within entities.
Starting in the late 1930s, Heidegger
increasingly de-emphasizes will and subjectivity, stressing that we must wait for
the granting of Being and respond gratefully if it is granted to us. In the 1940s
he adopts a word from the mystic
Meister Eckhart, Gelassenheit or `releasement', to name this attitude (Heidegger,
1966; Zimmerman, 1986). Parallels
between this notion and some Taoist and

Martin Heidegger

Buddhist notions, as well as Heidegger's

talk of `the nothing' (`What is Metaphysics?' in Heidegger, 1993a), have led
to speculation that he borrowed extensively from East Asian traditions (Parkes,
1987; May, 1996). However, his relation
toward the East is perhaps better characterized as one of respect and curiosity.
Heidegger's late thought does not present a systematic doctrine, but circles
around several topics of enduring concern. He explores many facets of the
`history of Being', or the story of its
manifestations and concealments in the
West; he understands Being itself as happening historically, in a dynamic of granting and withdrawal. He names our
contemporary understanding of Being
Technik (`technology' or `technicity'), and
tries to show that this understanding is
only one, limited historical `sending' of
Being (Heidegger, 1977). His search for
an alternative relation to beings leads
him to investigate the work of art as a
locus of the strife between `world and
earth' roughly, a culture's interpretation
of beings and the obscure precultural
ground of this interpretation (`The
Origin of the Work of Art' in Heidegger,
1993a). He also explores language as the
`house of Being' (`Letter on Humanism' in
Heidegger, 1993a). Many of his late essays
and lectures are devoted to poetry
(Heidegger, 1971), especially that of the
Romantic poet Friedrich Holderlin,
whom he came to see as a prophet of
German destiny (Heidegger, 1996b).
Heidegger claims that he is not interested
in human beings in general, but only insofar as they are Dasein that is, only insofar
as they are open to Being. This accounts
for a certain sketchiness in Being and
Time's interpretation of some aspects of
our existence: he does not intend to produce a complete anthropology, but only
a description of our existence that is
sufciently rich to make manifest our


temporality as the horizon for our understanding of Being. Nevertheless, at least

ve aspects of Dasein as presented in
Being and Time have important implications for understanding society.
The rst aspect is the priority of engaged
involvement over theory and assertion. One of
Heidegger's main goals in Being and Time
is to show that we are primarily in the
world by means of doing things, in a
broad sense, rather than by means of
beliefs, theories, concepts, or propositions.
(He shows this by way of a detailed interpretation of the everyday `environment' in
which we make and use `equipment'.)
Our relation to other entities is one of `concern' (Besorgen), and our whole way of
Being can be called `care' (Sorge); these
words are meant to indicate that we relate
to things and people primarily by letting
them matter to us in engaged involvement, and only secondarily by forming
Theoretical assertions thus always depend
on a pretheoretical dwelling in the world;
the truths of theory presuppose a primordial truth, in the sense of `unconcealment',
that always accompanies our Being-inthe-world. For social theory, this would
imply that interpersonal relations and
social structures should primarily be
understood not in terms of our opinions,
values, or other `mental' contents, but in
terms of how we reveal ourselves to each
other in and through practical dealings.
The second aspect concerns `Being-with'
(Mitsein). When Heidegger turns to the
question of `who' is engaged in the
world, he tries to show that Dasein's
Being is `Being-with'; in other words, we
are essentially social beings (Being and
Time, sec. 26). Phenomena such as loneliness, withdrawal, and hostility do not
show that Dasein is fundamentally an
atomic individual; instead, they are
merely `decient modes' of Being-with.
Heidegger shows this initially by demonstrating that even when an individual
Dasein is alone, its everyday environment
intrinsically involves `references' to other
Dasein who are fellow users and producers of `equipment'. Thus each Dasein


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

necessarily interprets itself in relation

to others, and constantly has a sense of
`distantiality' that is, its status in relation
to other Dasein. Here Heidegger's analysis
undercuts the solitary, rst-person perspective of much modern philosophy, as
inaugurated by Descartes's `I think, therefore I am'.
The third aspect relates to the `they' (das
Man). As essentially social beings, we
share a basic repertoire of practices and
self-interpretations with the other members of our community. Since this repertoire is fundamentally anonymous rather
than individualized, I am not primarily `I
myself', but rather anyone or `they'
(sec. 27). With this expression, Heidegger
points to the interchangeability of everyday roles: my practices could, in principle,
be performed by anyone else.
The fourth aspect concerns the ideas
of authenticity and inauthenticity. The
anonymity of the `they' both enables and
encourages an `inauthentic' mode of existence, in which one exists as a `they-self'.
Instead of making our own choices, we
usually simply allow ourselves to act
and judge as `one' does even when we
take ourselves to be individual or original
(we all shrink back from `the great mass').
We are normally `falling' into the present
world, and we ignore the task of choosing
explicitly what we are to make of ourselves. Authenticity, in contrast, is a
mode of existing in which one truly
behaves as a self: one makes `resolute'
choices and takes responsibility for them.
One can be awakened to the need for
authenticity by disturbing experiences,
such as the mood of anxiety (Angst) and
the call of conscience, that force one to confront one's own `Being-towards-death'
(the constant possibility of the impossibility of existing) and `guilt' (indebtedness to
the past plus responsibility for the future).
One can then recognize that existence is
not completely anonymous and interchangeable: no one but I can do the job of
choosing who I am to be, in the face of my
own mortality. However, authenticity does
not simply disengage one from the `they';
this would be impossible, since all one's

options grow from one's community and

heritage. Authenticity is a responsible and
lucid appropriation of one's sociality,
rather than a solitary withdrawal from
sociality in which one would try to create
oneself anew. Heidegger also briey
sketches the difference between some
authentic and some inauthentic ways of
relating to others. For example, inauthentic `leaping in' for someone relieves the
other of the need to do something,
whereas authentic `leaping ahead' opens
up new possibilities for the other.
Heidegger claims that this is not a moral
distinction, but simply an indication of
two different modes of Being-in-theworld.
The nal aspect of Dasein is historicality.
Heidegger's most dramatic descriptions
of authenticity and of Dasein's temporality
are reserved for his account of `historicality' (sec. 74). An entire community or
`people' (Volk) has a shared past (a `heritage') and a shared range of future possibilities (a `destiny'); a people `happens'
historically by stretching from a heritage
into a destiny. Heidegger proposes that
each generation is faced with the task of
authentically appropriating its heritage
and discovering its destiny, through a process of `communication and struggle'. A
heritage can serve as a source of heroes
role models whose existence can be
`retrieved' creatively and adapted to the
unique exigencies of the present situation.
There are no ahistorical standards for
human existence only past examples
that can be resurrected and transformed
into future possibilities.
Around the time of his own abortive
attempt at authentically historical action,
Heidegger draws some connections
between the very general analyses of
Being and Time and the particular situation
of Germany. He asserts that `historicity'
and `care' imply the desirability of a certain social structure, a regime dedicated to
preserving the destiny of the Volk through
a strong state (Heidegger, 1993b, 1998;
Lowith, 1994). This is clearly how he
interprets National Socialism during this

Martin Heidegger

In the later 1930s, however, Heidegger

became increasingly discontented with
the Nazi regime. Nazi political measures
may have some justication, he thought,
but they fail to address the basic issue: the
status of the German people's relation to
Being. As the people at the centre of the
West, the Germans are entrusted with the
destiny of reawakening the question of
Being (Heidegger, 2000). It is in these
terms, and not on the basis of race, that
national identity is to be understood
(Heidegger, 1999). The Being of a Volk is
essentially contested and questionable,
rather than denable like the Being of an
object (`Who are we?', Heidegger likes to
ask). By the end of the decade, he was
looking not to Hitler, but to the poet
Holderlin as the spokesman for national
destiny. He was thoroughly disillusioned
with Nazi propaganda and its quasiNietzschean metaphysics. However, he
condemns liberalism and Communism
as equally nihilistic manifestations of the
modern worldview (Zimmerman, 1990;
Polt, 1997; Fried, 2000).
Heidegger's readings of Nietzsche
(Heidegger, 197987) parallel this shift in
his politics. His lectures on Nietzsche from
the mid-1930s are sympathetic explorations of Nietzsche's attempts to escape
the constraints of traditional metaphysics,
particularly through a revaluation of art.
By the 1940s, however, Heidegger has
developed an almost dismissive reading
of Nietzsche as `the last metaphysician'.
Nietzsche understands the Being of
beings as the eternally recurring will to
power but like all metaphysicians,
Nietzsche fails to ask how it is that we
are able to understand Being in the rst
place. Nietzsche's attempt to combat
nihilism falls prey to the deepest sort of
nihilism the oblivion of Being. In the
end, he offers nothing but an exaltation
of the subject as pure will, or a `will to
will' that imposes representations and
values on objects.
The Nietzschean overman is only the
nal form of `humanism'; Heidegger's
postwar thought continues his thorough-


going critique of this phenomenon (`Letter

on Humanism,' in Heidegger, 1993a).
Humanism, in the Heideggerian sense, is
any way of thinking that glories human
beings yet fails to ask about Being itself.
Humanism represents all beings in terms
of some concept of their Being and gives
humanity a central position among beings
as a whole; however, humanism takes the
meaning of Being for granted and does
not grasp the human being as the one
who is called to engage in a respectful,
creative response to Being. Thus, humanism inappropriately raises humanity
above Being; at the same time, humanism
misses the real dignity of humans by failing to understand our true calling. On the
political level, Heidegger's antihumanism
translates into a sweeping rejection of all
existing regimes. All modern political
alternatives are surface phenomena, variants of the same underlying humanism.
They all celebrate the human subject (as an
individual, a nation, a class or a species) at
the expense of Being.
Technology (or technicity) is a closely
related sign of the `oblivion of Being'. By
Technik, Heidegger means not just sophisticated machinery, but a way of dealing
with and conceiving of beings in general.
The technological world view experiences
beings as `standing reserve', or sources
of energy that can be represented and
manipulated by subjects (Heidegger,
1977). Modern natural science is essentially `technological', quite apart from
its application to the construction of
machinery, because it proceeds by forcing
a mathematical means of representation
upon beings; when approached in this
way, beings are reduced to a supply of
manageable information.
Heidegger sees technicity at work in the
political realm as well as in all other
spheres of the modern world. For
instance, in one of the most controversial
of his rare postwar references to Nazism,
he declares, `Agriculture is now a
motorized food industry, essentially the
same as the manufacture of corpses in
gas chambers and extermination camps,
the same as the blockade and starvation


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

of countries, the same as the manufacture

of hydrogen bombs' (`Das Ge-Stell' in
Heidegger, 1994). In other words, all
these phenomena are manifestations of a
manipulative, exploitative relation to
beings including human beings. For
some readers, this thought offers a deep
insight into the roots of fascism; for others,
it is a reductive view that tries to minimize
the distinctive evil of Nazism.
The most original aspect of Heidegger's
account of technology is his understanding of it in relation to the `history of Being'.
Technicity is not simply a mistake or a
careless interpretation of the world; it is
our destiny. The technological relation to
beings is the way in which a meaning of
Being has been `sent' to us. We must learn
to experience this meaning of Being as a
gift, and realize that it stems from a mysterious historical granting that cannot
itself be understood in technological
For these reasons, Heidegger offers no
sweeping plan of action to combat
humanism and technology. He limits himself to suggesting that we may be able to
make small changes in our practices; perhaps we can use technical devices without
succumbing completely to a technological
understanding of the world (Heidegger,
1966). Such changes may hold open the
possibility of a future `poetic dwelling'
that would gather us into a new proximity
to Being. To suppose that we can solve all
our problems through reason and will is
merely to continue along the path of technicity thus there is little we can do but
wait attentively for a new destiny. To put it
most dramatically, `only a god can save
us' (Heidegger, 1990).
Heidegger's inuence on contemporary
thought is multiform. His writings have
become almost inevitable points of reference for Continental philosophers and
cultural theorists, especially in France;

they have also affected disciplines such

as theology and literary theory. Here we
can do no more than sketch some of the
important appropriations of
Heidegger's thought, particularly as they
relate to social theory.
Being and Time, along with some essays
such as `What is Metaphysics?', had an
impact on existentialists during the 1940s
notably on Jean-Paul Sartre, who drew
on Heidegger's vocabulary in his phenomenology of freedom and consciousness
(Sartre, 1966). Like `existential' thinkers
such as Kierkegaard, Karl Jaspers, and
Sartre, the early Heidegger attempts to
understand the dynamics of human existence in terms of decision and individuality, and stresses that human beings cannot
be understood as if they were objects.
However, he differs from highly individualistic existentialists in that he rejects
the notion of absolute freedom and stresses that human identity is possible only
within a group and a tradition. For the
later Heidegger, Sartre's position falls
prey to all the problems of humanism.
For these reasons, Heidegger himself
rejected the label `existentialist'.
The 1950s saw the ourishing of the
thought of Hannah Arendt, who had
been Heidegger's student in the 1920s.
The inuence of Heidegger's earlier
thought is clear in Arendt's emphasis on
action over contemplation and in her
opposition to notions of the subject as
an internal, private realm (Arendt, 1959;
Villa, 1996). Arendt develops these insights into a philosophy centred on the
practice of political debate within a deliberative democracy, whereas Heidegger
never seemed to appreciate politics as a
deliberative sphere, and in his later years
withdrew completely from the political
Another pupil of Heidegger, HansGeorg
Heidegger's account of the appropriation
of tradition as a fundamental mode of
understanding (Gadamer, 1997). This
ontology of understanding makes
Heidegger a major gure in hermeneutics,
the theory of interpretation. His inuence

Martin Heidegger

is clear in the work of Gadamer as well as

in that of other hermeneutic thinkers, such
as Paul Ricoeur (Ricoeur, 1974).
Gadamer's emphasis on tradition has
given him a perhaps undeserved reputation as a conservative thinker. However,
Heidegger's thought has also appealed
to some thinkers on the left. As early as
1928, his student Herbert Marcuse proposed that Heidegger's interpretation of
practical Being-in-the-world could round
out the Marxist view of human nature
(Marcuse, 1969). After Heidegger's own
political misadventures, his philosophy
was off-limits to orthodox Marxists.
However, his thought has continued to
attract leftist theorists because (at least in
Being and Time) he stresses the importance
of engaged action in the material world,
and because his thought undermines the
standard liberal theory of society as a collection of independent individuals. For
these reasons, and because of his inuence
on Marcuse, Heidegger may be understood as an indirect source of the politics
of `authenticity' and the revolt against
conformism by the New Left of the
1960s. As a narrative purporting to reveal
a deep, repressed truth, Heidegger's later
`history of Being' can also function as a
powerful tool for criticism of established
ideologies; in this respect, his thought
functions somewhat like that of Marx,
Nietzsche, or Freud. The Heideggerian
notions of humanism and technology can
then serve the purposes of a radical critique of capitalism, fascism, and existing
socialism in the name of a possible posthumanist alternative. (For a history and
criticism of the appropriation of
Heidegger by the `antihumanist' French
left, see Ferry and Renaut, 1990a, 1990b.)
The thought of Jacques Derrida is one of
the most original of the radical appropriations of Heidegger that began in the
France of the 1960s. For Derrida,
Heidegger's main importance lies in his
critique of the `metaphysics of presence'.
Derrida argues that this critique implies
that it is impossible to set up a system in
which one entity is successfully represented as supreme, or in which one


means of representation is established as

totally transparent that is, perfectly
unambiguous and perfectly adapted to
the representation of its objects. The centre
of a representational system is always
dependent on the margins, despite its
attempt to establish hegemony over
them (e.g. Derrida, 1982). Derrida applies
this critique to politics: by deconstructing
the various metaphysical systems that
prop up political regimes (the theory of
apartheid, for example), we can make
room for the liberation of their marginalized `others'. Thus, justice can never be
deconstructed for deconstruction is justice (Derrida, 1992).
Michel Foucault's work has often been
seen as having similar liberating potential,
although he disclaimed such an intent.
His thought can be seen as a creative combination of Nietzsche and Heidegger.
From Nietzsche, Foucault adopts the project of a `genealogical' study of concrete
systems of power relations. From
Heidegger's history of Being, he adopts
the idea that these power relations are
systems of representations of beings, and
that no such system can establish its own
necessity. Foucault also borrows from
Heidegger's critique of humanism,
although in Foucault's analysis, `man'
has a very specic sense: `man' is the
being who is both an empirical object
that can be represented, and the subject
whose modes of representation are transcendental conditions of possibility for all
objects. `Man' in this sense is a relatively
recent, post-Kantian `invention' (Foucault,
1970). This analysis is inspired by
Heidegger inasmuch as it highlights the
tensions within modern `representational'
thinking, which according to Heidegger
presupposes the metaphysics of presence.
More recently, Heidegger's subordination of theory to engaged dwelling has
been taken up by American thinkers in
search of a revived pragmatism (e.g.
Okrent, 1988). For Hubert Dreyfus, Being
and Time teaches us that representations
and concepts stem from a more basic competence or `coping' (Dreyfus, 1991). For


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Dreyfus this implies, among other things,

that articial intelligence is impossible as
it is currently conceived, and that ethical
insight should be understood as a kind of
practical expertise. According to Richard
Rorty, Heidegger (along with Dewey and
Wittgenstein) deates the traditional
ambition of philosophy to serve as the
`mirror of nature'. Rorty's appropriation
of Heidegger is not unlike Derrida's, in
that he seeks to undermine the claims to
absoluteness of any system of representation. Rorty holds that the role of philosophers is not to construct dominant
theories, but to foster conversation in
their culture; this translates into a politics
of liberal tolerance (Rorty, 1991).
Points of Controversy
The debates concerning Heidegger's
social thinking are inevitably coloured by
the highly controversial topic of his afliation with the Nazi regime. There is a wide
variety of opinion on whether his philosophical thought has fascist political implications. (For a range of views, see Neske
and Kettering, 1990; Rockmore and
Margolis, 1992; Wolin, 1993; Harries and
Jamme, 1994.)
At one extreme, we nd total condemnation: Heidegger's thinking is simply the
philosophical codication of a reactionary
political position (Adorno, 1986; Bourdieu,
1991). Bourdieu provides a rhetorical analysis of Heidegger's texts as covert,
euphemistic political statements. His
intent is not only to expose Heidegger,
but to challenge the supposed autonomy
of philosophical discourse; the philosophical `eld' must be reintegrated into
the social eld at large. Even the most
exalted ontology is a manoeuvre conducted within an established `game', a
set of possible social stances. For instance,
Bourdieu reads the distinction between
authenticity and inauthenticity as a way
of obscuring `objective' differences of
A similar, more detailed reading of
Being and Time is provided by Johannes
Fritsche (1999). Fritsche points out, for

example, that Heidegger's account of

Dasein parallels the language of many
of his antiliberal contemporaries, who
criticized atomized `society' (Gesellschaft)
in the name of a deeper `community'
(Gemeinschaft) (cf. Sluga, 1993). For
Fritsche, the account of historicity in
Being and Time is nothing short of a call
for a National Socialist revolution.
On the other extreme, one can argue
that despite Heidegger's personal failings,
his philosophical thought rises above
them completely. The ontology of Dasein
provided in Being and Time is in part too
general to be associated exclusively with a
fascist politics, and in part actually inconsistent with fascism. Fascism treats
human beings as objects to be manipulated and used, but Being and Time implies
that such behaviour is a misunderstanding of Dasein's way of Being. A strong
example of this type of argument is provided by Young (1997).
Perhaps the most interesting readings
of Heidegger's Nazi connection are those
that fall between these two extremes (e.g.
Derrida, 1989; Lacoue-Labarthe, 1990;
Caputo, 1993; Thiele, 1995; de Beistegui,
1998). These interpretations neither use
Heidegger's politics to reject his philosophy, nor dismiss his politics as irrelevant;
they seek to nd food for independent
thought both in Heidegger's philosophy
and in the implications of his Nazi sympathies. One common suggestion is that
these sympathies demonstrate the continuing, insidious power of the metaphysics
of presence; Heidegger's attraction to fascism shows that it was difcult for him to
escape the metaphysical thinking that his
own thought renders unworkable. This
view is essentially in agreement with
Heidegger's own nal interpretation of
Nazism as a form of `humanism'. A more
original interpretation is that of Gregory
Fried (2000), who argues that, regardless
of the depth or length of Heidegger's commitment to National Socialism, his thought
involves an enduring commitment to a
`polemical' understanding of Dasein and
Being. For Heidegger, genuine unconcealment demands an ongoing confrontation

Martin Heidegger

with the limits of one's understanding

of Being; this vision presents a serious
challenge to conventional understandings
of politics as a means to ensure peace,
rights, and equality.
Heidegger's social thinking is equally
controversial on the level of his analysis
of person-to-person relationships. In the
inuential reading of Emmanuel Levinas
(1969), Heidegger's preoccupation with
the question of Being crowds out the question of `the other', leaving no room for a
genuine understanding of the face-to-face
encounter and of the ethical demand
for justice. (Here one should consider
Heidegger's argument in a 1929 lecture
course: the `Ithou' relationship is not primary, but is only one particular mode of
Dasein's Being, Heidegger, 1984.)
In contrast, others (Olafson, 1998;
Hatab, 2000) hold that Heidegger's early
work actually makes it possible to conceive of interpersonal relations in a way
that is freed from many traditional prejudices; he thus suggests the ontological
groundwork for an ethics, even if he
does not provide an ethics in his own writings. Hatab makes a strong case that
Heidegger's interpretation of Dasein as
situated and nite can alert us both to
the need for ethical responsibility and to
the difcult, questionable character of
ethical decisions.
One way of considering Heidegger's signicance for philosophy in general is to
view him as dealing the death blow to
the typical modern picture of the human
condition, according to which human
beings are fundamentally private minds,
atomic subjects who relate to external
objects by means of representations and
judgments. Heidegger describes us,
instead, as social beings who interpret
themselves and their surroundings primarily through engaged action. This
could be read as a return to Aristotle's
insights into the human being as a `political
animal' and into the irreducibility of practical knowledge to theoretical knowledge.


At the same time, however, at least in

Being and Time, Heidegger satises certain
aspirations of modernity. He makes room
for the modern demand for individual
autonomy and the modern view of
humanity as free and self-interpreting,
rather than constrained by a xed essence.
His concept of authenticity manages to
combine sociality with responsibility by
developing an account of situated, nite
For these reasons, Heidegger's early
work holds promise for our understanding
of society. His provocative descriptions of
everydayness and authenticity have
the potential to enrich and transform the
standard concepts of sociology just as
they transformed psychological concepts
when they were adopted by the existential
psychotherapy movement in the 1950s.
When Heidegger turns away from
everydayness in the 1930s, he stops
describing actual social life and instead
focuses on its supposed deep causes
the historically unfolding understanding
of Being, including the presumed dominance of the `metaphysics of presence' in
Western thought. This analysis is more
useful as a reading of the history of philosophy than as a guide to history at large.
Heidegger never tries to support his view
that all human history is grounded in the
history of Being by carrying out detailed
cultural and historical analyses. His late
opinions on social life are too abstract
and reductive to provide genuine insight
into how society works and into the
varieties of possible human regimes and
cultures. It can be argued that cultural theorists such as Foucault have gone some
distance towards applying Heideggerian
ideas to actual history. However, like standard Marxist and Freudian theories,
Heidegger's late thought tends to function
as an unfalsiable framework rather than
as a hypothesis that can be conrmed or
countered by empirical studies. As such, it
should be treated as a suggestive tool for
social interpretation, but not as the last
The disturbing political overtones of
some of Heidegger's thought should not


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

be forgotten, but one must beware of readings such as those of Bourdieu and
Fritsche, which are sophisticated versions
of what is traditionally called an ad hominem argument. They locate Heidegger's
discourse in its contemporary milieu;
this in itself is unobjectionable, and is
even quite consistent with Heidegger's
own view that human beings are situated
and historical. Such efforts are also helpful
in alerting us to possible blind spots in
Heidegger's thinking. However, when a
rhetorical and political analysis is presented as the nal analysis, it becomes
reductive; it rules out the possibility that
Heidegger's thoughts, situated though
they are, may also have relevance and
truth for us. For example, it is possible
that his view of human existence as essentially `Being-with' simply is truer than the
concept of society as a collection of wholly
independent individuals. Even if this
insight has sometimes been invoked in
support of fascism, there is certainly
more than one way to try to convert it
into a political programme; the concept
of community has often been used by nonfascist thinkers, including contemporary
Walzer, 1983; Taylor, 1989; Sandel, 1998).
We should also recognize that sociological, political, and rhetorical interpretations presuppose an understanding of the
`Being' of society, polity, language, and
human beings in general. Whether or not
one agrees with Heidegger's account of
Dasein, it deserves to be taken seriously
as an attempt to enrich our understanding
of ourselves.

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Adorno, T. (1986) The Jargon of Authenticity. London:

Routledge & Kegan Paul.
Arendt, H. (1959) The Human Condition. Garden City,
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Martin Heidegger
de Beistegui, M. (1998) Heidegger and the Political:
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Derrida, J. (1982) Margins of Philosophy. Chicago:
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Derrida, J. (1989) Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question.
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(eds), Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice.
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Dreyfus, H.L. (1991) Being-in-the-World: A
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Ferry, L. and Renaut, A. (1990a) French Philosophy of
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Heidegger's Introduction to Metaphysics. New
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Fritsche, J. (1999) Historical Destiny and National
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to Heidegger. Cambridge: Cambridge University
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Heidegger: Politics, Art, and Technology. New York/
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Understanding, Being, and the Critique of
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Thinker. Chicago: Precedent.
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Politics in Nazi Germany. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Taylor, C. (1989) Sources of the Self: The Making of the
Modern Identity. Cambridge, MA: Harvard
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Thiele, L. (1995) Timely Meditations: Martin Heidegger
and Postmodern Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton
University Press.
Villa, D.R. (1996) Heidegger and Arendt: The Fate of the
Political. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Walzer, M. (1983) Spheres of Justice: A Defense of
Pluralism and Equality. New York: Basic Books.
Wolin, R. (ed.) (1993) The Heidegger Controversy: A
Critical Reader. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Young, J. (1997) Heidegger, Philosophy, Nazism.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Zimmerman, M.E. (1986) Eclipse of the Self: The
Development of Heidegger's Concept of Authenticity,
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Zimmerman, M.E. (1990) Heidegger's Confrontation
with Modernity: Technology, Politics and Art.
Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Georges Bataille



s a writer whose identity was

partly created through his writing, the facts of Bataille's life
should be treated with caution. Born on
10 September 1897 at Billom, Puy-deDome, Bataille later regarded his childhood in traumatic terms. His father was
blind and syphilitic and suffered a general
paralysis when Bataille was three. Having
been brought up by atheist parents who
had no interest in religion, in adolescence
he became a Catholic. Even though he
was soon to reject Christianity (having
enrolled for the priesthood, by 1920 he
had lost his faith), the impulse that drew
him towards it still provided a focus for an
essential underlying aspect of his work:
what moral necessity justies our existence in the modern world? His conversion to Catholicism coincided with
declaration of war in 1914, two events
that seem linked in the evolution of his
thinking. Even though he did not see
combat (he was called up but soon
demobilized after a bout of tuberculosis),
Bataille's personality was still marked by
the experience of the war. Having studied
to become a medievalist at the Ecole des

Chartes in 1922 he was given a grant to

study in Spain where he witnessed the
death in the ring of the bullghter
Manuelo Granero. This was to have a
powerful impact on him, uniting eroticism and death in his mind and making
a link that would fascinate him for the rest
of his life.
Upon return to Paris, he obtained work
at the Bibliotheque Nationale, a position
he held for the next 20 years (he was
a librarian for most of his life). At the
same time, he began serious study of
philosophy. As a student of the exiled
Russian philosopher Leon Chestov, he
gained a deep understanding of
Nietzsche, who was to be the great inuence on his social thinking. Chestov's
teaching offered a powerful lesson to
Bataille: it showed him that thought was
valuable only when related to experience,
and that cultivation of sensory perception
was as important as cultivation of the
mind. In this, Nietzsche's rehabilitation
of the body was crucial. A period of
great instability in Bataille's personal life
followed, in which he lived a dissolute
night life and came into contact with the
surrealists, whose sensibility he shared,
even if he found the atmosphere around
the Surrealist Group stiing.

Georges Bataille

He started to write seriously in about

1927 and his experience of extreme states
of mind is apparent in his early work, as
can be seen in such articles as `The solar
anus' and `The pineal eye', and in the clandestinely published novel, The Story of the
Eye. In the same year he was asked to
assist in the production of the journal
Documents, which was published regularly until 1931, and for which he wrote
numerous articles and soon became its
de-facto co-editor.
During the next few years, Bataille's
interests expanded into the elds of
anthropology and sociology and he
attended the lectures of Marcel Mauss.
He also became politically involved, participating in Boris Souvarine's Cercle
Communiste Democratique and contributing key essays to its journal La Critique
sociale, in which he explored for the rst
time in extended form his ideas about
expenditure and loss and on the dangers
represented by the emergence of fascism.
He also took part in an abortive attempt to
create a `popular university' and in 1935
founded, with Andre Breton, the antiPopular Front group Contre-Attaque.
In 1934, he began attending Alexandre
Kojeve's lectures on Hegel's phenomenology, which were crucial in giving him a
new perspective on the possibilities of
Hegel's philosophy. Further turmoil in
his personal life led to the break-up of his
rst marriage and the start of an intense
relationship with Colette Peignot, whose
death in 1938 was to have a devastating
effect on him.
In 1936, he created the College of
Sociology, an attempt at an `activist sociology', as well as Acephale, a secret society
intent on a `voyage out of this world',
which also had the practical purpose of
rescuing Nietzsche from the distortions
promulgated about him by the Nazis.
A decade of intense public activity came
to an end with the coming of a new war
which caused Bataille to withdraw into
himself. He began writing his most
introspective books, Le Coupable and
L'Experience interieure, as well as the
intense erotic tales Madame Edwarda and


The Dead Man. Having been forced by

sickness to leave the Bibliotheque
Nationale, he retired to the French countryside and, in 1943, published his rst
substantial work of social theory,
L'Experience interieure, which explored
the existential problems of existing in the
modern world. During the next few years
he immersed himself in a range of projects. He published various works, including the volume of poems L'Archangelique
(1944), the reective philosophical texts
Sur Nietzsche (1945) and Methode de meditation (1947), the theoretical work, Theorie de
religion (1948) and the economic analysis
of La Part maudite (1949). In 1946 he
founded Critique, a journal devoted to
substantial reviews of recently published
books in a wide range of subjects. He was
to be its editor until his death and published numerous articles in it. In 1947 he
gave some lectures at the College philosophique, but had no regular employment
and experienced severe nancial difculties until 1949, when he became a librarian
in Charpentras.
During the 1950s, he struggled with illness but was still productive. He published the novels L'Abbe C. (1950) and Le
Bleu du ciel (1957), a collection of essays on
literature, La Literature et le mal (1957),
three books on art (on Manet and prehistoric art, both in 1955, and Les Larmes
d'Eros, on eroticism in art, 1961), as well as
his most important study, L'Erotisme
(1957). He died in Paris in 1962.
Bataille had wide-ranging interests and
published books in the realms of philosophy, economic theory, art history, literature, and ction. All of this work is
dominated by a concern with social
themes. It has to be seen against the background of his times. Traumatized as
Bataille was by childhood experiences
and the impact of the First World War,
his work is an attempt to engage with
the moral issue of whether it is possible
to exist in society or whether the modern
consciousness has reached such a state of
inrmity that social being is impossible. In
this sense he is rmly within the framework of surrealist revolt and was repelled


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

by a civilization that had been responsible

for the horrors of the trenches. He felt that
the tradition of French rationalist thought
was implicated in this debacle and, again
like the surrealists, he was ready to `hold
out a hand to the enemy', looking to the
German tradition, precisely to Nietzsche
and later Hegel, as thinkers who had a
depth that was able to address the moral
crisis of contemporary consciousness.
At the core of Bataille's preoccupations is
the nature of humanity's collective existence and how we respond to it as individuals. How do we live in society and in
the world? How do we co-exist with our
fellow beings? These were the questions
that haunted him. He had little interest
in being itself, nor was he concerned
about the nature of individual identity.
Existence was only of interest to him
in its social dimension. In this respect,
humanist ideas were alien to his way of
thinking, for human beings exist only in
relation with others. Human life is unable
to tolerate isolated being: we are formed
as humans only through social interaction.
Equally, we can exist only within the
frame established by social limits and
this denes our reality. It means that any
idea of transcendence is a delusion.
Bataille considered that it is essential to
face social and existential reality as
squarely as one can and not strive to
elude the inevitability of one's fate.
Looking for the reasons for existence has
little meaning. The most important focus
for social investigation is to understand
how we are able to live within the limits
that life imposes on us.
Yet, unlike most thinkers interested in
understanding social existence, Bataille
had little interest in taking the observed
world as an object of study. Rather,
he began with his own life. He did not
analyse given data with a view to drawing
a theory from it. His social theory emerges
from within himself and projected

outwards. It is for this reason that philosophical reection, novels, and poetic
texts all become the means to explore
the nature of what he called `inner
In using his own experience as the basis
of his social theory, however, Bataille was
not succumbing to subjectivism. There is
nothing narcissistic about his method. He
explored his inner experience only in
order to grasp the relation of his being
with that of others. The data of his own
life was of value only to the extent that it
was the most reliable available source
open to him.
Bataille's understanding of what constituted a social fact emerged from
Durkheim's sociology. He agreed with
Durkheim that societies are organic
wholes whose essential characteristics differ from the sum of their parts. At the
same time, though, social and personal
being are not to be seen as different things.
Collective consciousness is not abstract
but has a concrete reality as distinctive
as that of a particular individual existing
within it. The individual is related to the
collective in the same way as cells in a
body to an individual. In order to understand the social body, therefore, we also
need to understand the relation an individual has to it.
Bataille's debt to Durkheim is most
clearly seen in his analysis of the sacred.
Accepting the distinction Durkheim made
between sacred and profane, Bataille considered that the balance between them
had been broken in modern society, in
which the sacred struggles to survive in
a world dominated by the profane.
The sacred is communication and
Bataille saw the possibilities of communication today being broken down by the
dominance of exchange values. This has
an impact at every level of society. The
existence of the sacred implies an inherent
contract between human society and
the cosmos. This is given expression in
such practices as ritual sacrice. Sacrice
maintained the balance between sacred
and profane by allowing an outlet to the
surplus effusion generated by human

Georges Bataille

activity. It was a transgressive act serving

to maintain the taboo that protected the
world of work from contagious violence.
As societies develop, though, this complex interrelation is ruptured and the
homogeneity of modern societies is
instituted by means of a fundamental
The nature of this profanation can be
explored through what Bataille calls the
`restricted economy'. This is characteristic
of modern societies and is based on the
need to reduce scarcity. It encourages the
accumulation of wealth at the expense of
the social communication that is the basic
quality of the sacred. Bataille saw this as a
delusion. He regarded life in its essentials
as being energy striving to expend itself
uselessly. Humanity has increasingly
tried to regulate this basic effusion by
means of work, to the extent that, in modern society, work provides the parameter
by which all activity is judged. It is this
that represents the triumph of the profane
and establishes the frame within which
the restricted economy is able to dominate
all activity. Against this process, Bataille
posits the idea of the `general economy',
which would restore the principle of
generosity into human relations.
The general economy, as Bataille understands it, is determined not by the accumulation of wealth through work but by
expenditure: the joyful consumption of
excess wealth by means of the festival,
laughter, and play. In modern societies
the latter activities are accursed, being
given to us only as recompense for our
devotion to the principle of work. As
such it is no longer possible to experience
pure effusion. Transgression, as the secret
of the sacred, is tamed and reduced to a
means of social control. It can be manifested only in regulated pleasure (perhaps
symbolized most clearly by the package
holiday), or in destructive activities such
as war.
For Bataille, then, the essential social
problem facing humankind is not, as generally assumed, poverty. On the contrary,
we are, as he says, `sick with wealth'. And
this sickness is the result not of wealth


itself but of the fact that we have individualized it. We have convinced ourselves
that wealth is something we can own, that
accrues to us as individuals rather than
belonging to humanity in its generality.
This is the lie that irrevokably ruptures
any sense of harmony we can achieve
with the cosmos and which, in the past,
was encapsulated by the idea of the
The consequence is that distinction
becomes the only measure of social prestige. And servility in turn is established as
the gauge against which distinction gains
its value. Class distinction is institutionalized and so status comes to determine
being. This results in servility pervading
each aspect of society, so that even power
itself comes to be applied in servility
instead of in sovereignty.
Sovereignty is a principle of life that
takes a moral shape in human interaction.
Sovereignty is simultaneously present in
the consecration of the immediate and
the human will to realize itself. It represents the essence of becoming: acceptance
of the immediacy offered by life, rather
than a striving to transcend its limits, combined with a refusal to accept a debased
existence. But this is paradoxical, because
the very ow of human life works against
the possibility of a sovereign existence. In
order to survive in society we are forced to
make an accommodation both with our
fellow beings and with the world. This
establishes a fundamental breach which
can never be entirely surmounted. The
fact of this gap means that we are incomplete beings whose existence is discontinuous, that is, separated from all other
It is the existence of death that reveals
this gap. Knowing we shall die, we recognize that we are limited beings. The principle of work and building for the future
are attempts to deny this, to try to convince ourselves that we shall not die.
However, we are also marked with a longing for the continuity we have lost by the
fact of being born. This is at the basis of
what Freud called the death instinct.
Death perpetrates violence against us but


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

in so doing it reunites us with the continuity of the world. It is in the realization of

death that communication between
humans is founded. And it is for this
reason that sexual activity especially
nonproductive sexual activity, in other
words eroticism assumes such importance. The sexual act unites life and
death, providing the link between them,
but also suggesting the possibility of
reconciling the disjunction between
them, even if only for a moment. In eroticism, life momentarily overows its limits
and gives us the promise of a devastating
profusion. But this promise takes shape
due to the awareness we have of death,
which immediately negates it. This is
why Bataille says that eroticism is an afrmation of life up to the point of, and even
in, death.
The sex act is thus not simply instinctive, an activity we need for the propagation of the species. Rather it is necessary
for us in our psychic depths: it is a mental
act that arises as a will to experience an
elemental communication with the lover.
It represents the body wishing to surpass
the limits imposed on it by life and the
will to unite with another being even
with the recognition that this clash is a
threat to its own integral sensibility. The
erotic act, then, is a form of communication with death; it is life asserting the
essential link it has with death. And this
also entails an encounter with the loss of
identity that death entails. The tension at
the centre of this clash is what founds the
anguish of human existence.
Like eroticism, the impulse to write is
also founded in the need for communication. Bataille considered writing to be
fundamentally a moral act, but one that
is evil or sinful. This is because the very
condition of existence is guilt, a guilt that
is manifested through anguish and is an
inherent part of our nature that is created
simply by the fact that we have been born.
Coming into being, we recognize ourselves as an absence or lack and the
genuine writer is the one who recognizes
this. Like the ancient sacricer, the writer
is engaged in a necessary task of seeking

to establish a sense always provisional

of harmony between human existence and
the cosmos. And indeed, in its highest
form, that is in poetry, writing has something of the same momentous quality that
was once the condition of sacrice. Poetry
is, in fact, perhaps the only possibility we
have in today's world for an authentic
experience of the sacred. The acts of writing and reading are thus, for Bataille, discreet and intimately tied in with silence.
This silence is at once the gap between
human experience and the cosmos, and
that between what is written and what is
read. It offers an alternative to pursuing
the utilitarian needs of self-interest that
dominate modern society. But this is still
a paradox for, if the impulse to write is to
establish an immediate communication
with the reader, the very fact of writing
precludes this immediacy since the reader
can only encounter the text in conditions
the writer has not chosen: the experience
is always mediated in one way or another.
For this reason, writing is a less authentic
means of expression than that found in
Bataille's understanding of truth. Like
Nietzsche, he had a profound distrust of
Enlightenment claims for truth as a criterion for absolute understanding. For
Bataille knowledge itself had an intrinsic
ability to undermine itself. He characterized this by his concept of `nonknowledge'. This was a direct challenge
to evolutionary views of knowledge as
necessarily leading to a greater knowledge. Bataille argued, on the contrary,
that knowledge can also lead both to
ignorance and to the collapse of knowledge. On the other hand, there is also a
state of being in which lack of knowledge
may itself contain wisdom: we may
`understand' not through the accumulation of knowledge but by the calm contentment of vacancy. This has a lot in
common with meditative techniques and
is also linked with Bataille's idea of silence
as a desirable condition of life. However,
this is not to deny either knowledge or
truth. If truth exists it is to be found not

Georges Bataille

in knowledge itself but in the margins

between knowledge and nonknowledge.
This idea also affects the practice of
writing. Bataille had no wish to convince.
He wanted a to establish a relation of intimacy and complicity with the reader. At
times his writing is provocative, it seeks to
jolt the reader out of complacency. Rather
than providing an argument, he lays
down a challenge.
The condition of life, as Bataille saw it,
is paradoxical, based on an impossible
combination of different states of being.
This paradox lies at the heart of our nature
as human beings. Living with the awareness that we are impermanent beings who
will one day die, we recoil from this
awareness in terror. And yet, just as we
ee this realization and build for a future
that will never come, we also have an urge
to shatter the works by which we strive to
achieve a transcendence of death. This is
the basis of the transgression that is central to the very structure of human society.
The tension between the will towards
order and the pull of disorder is the reality
that Bataille sought to explore through an
examination of how awareness of death
affects human experience.
It was from this point of view that he
denied the very possibility of ultimate
knowledge. We can never fully understand the world because life's condition
is necessarily incomplete. In this respect,
the labyrinth provides a metaphor for
human existence: we are led inexorably
along a path by a mystery we can never
fully unravel but which we are destined to
pursue to the end.
During his life, Bataille was a marginal
gure whose inuence on French intellectual life was discreet but signicant.
Through editing the journals Documents
and Critique and as the motivating gure
in the groups Acephale and College of
Sociology, he came into contact with
many of the leading gures of the interwar


period, making rm friends with writers

and artists of the surrealist circles, such
as Michel Leiris, Roger Caillois, Rene
Char, and Andre Masson. Friendship,
indeed, was a crucial element in
Bataille's make-up, which meant far more
to him that any impersonal `inuence',
whether with his contemporaries or with
ancestors most notably Nietzsche and
Hegel as he was drawn by the community founded in a fundamental refusal
of the poison of servility. This was the
`journey to the end of the night' of which
he spoke at the time of Acephale.
The community of which Bataille
dreamed in the 1930s was continued in
the friendships he later formed, especially
with Maurice Blanchot and Michel
Fardoulis-Lagrange, who responded
most rmly to what Blanchot would call
the `unconfessable community'. In no
sense were they his `disciples'. Rather
they engaged in a conversation in which
Bataille is as interlocutor or condant
ever present. Blanchot was the more explicit in making clear the nature of this
friendship that had, by its very nature, to
be unacknowledged. It was founded, as
Blanchot put it, in `thought's profound
grief'. The idea of this community is ultimately transgressive, which is why it cannot be `confessed'.
Blanchot's relation with Bataille has
been widely recognized. It lies in a concern with social being, the problem of
the consciousness of death, and the
moral responsibility that transgression
entails. A similar interest in human existence as resulting from an act that is essentially transgressive is central to the less
well-known work of Fardoulis-Lagrange,
who is similarly intrigued by the limits of
existence and the pull of death.
Friendship is often also marked by the
quality of one's enemies and Bataille did
not lack for the latter. An early tiff
between him and Andre Breton is well
known, reecting an ambivalent relation
between the two men which was the
result of a clash of different temperaments
rather than any substantial differences of


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

A less ambivalent antagonist was JeanPaul Sartre. Sartre criticized Bataille in an

early (1943) essay, `Un nouveau mystique'. Sartre's critique reads oddly
today, as it has little relation to the issues
now associated with Bataille. Yet it
remains important. Based on the idea of
self-creation by assuming responsibility
and commitment, Sartre's philosophy is
fundamentally at odds with Bataille's
undermining of individual becoming.
Bataille's ideas about the nature of existence are a threat to the way Sartre conceives of both the self and the
responsibility it must assume in order to
realize itself. For Sartre, Bataille's ideas
revealed a return to a dangerous form of
mysticism, which had to be combated
through philosophical analysis. Bataille
responded in an essay included in On
Nietzsche. In it he refused to reduce his
argument to the frame of reference Sartre
would impose. Instead he brought attention to Sartre's fundamental bad faith in
seeking to reduce the problem of communication to an issue of philosophical
If Sartre's critique now seems anachronistic and even off-beam, it has still served
to mark out the way Bataille has been
received by later writers both by his
detractors and by his admirers as an
antirationalist precursor of the poststructuralist project of deconstruction.
And it is in relation to the latter that
Bataille has generally been judged.
Whatever their orientation, all of the
early encounters with Bataille's thought
were marked by a sense of passion.
While he lived, Bataille was outside the
mainstream of French thought. He was
respected within a narrow circle and his
thought tended to provoke some extreme
reactions. In contrast, since his death, he
has become almost an icon of a particular
type of social criticism. His importance
is now recognized in elds as diverse as
philosophy, literature, theology, sociology,
economy. Yet a very different Bataille has
emerged with the appearance of the poststructuralist criticism which has been

responsible for establishing Bataille's

reputation. Derrida, Sollers, Barthes,
Kristeva, Baudrillard, and Foucault have
all written about him and it is these texts
that have served to mark Bataille as a key
gure in contemporary thought.
What unites all of these writers, beyond
the very real differences that exist
between them, is the will to unravel in
one way or another the power relations
that frame Western ideas. Bataille is
undoubtedly an important gure in opening the way into such a project. Through
the critique he made of the coherence of
thought and the integrity of the subject,
Bataille provided ammunition for the
deconstructive impulse that characterizes
post-structuralism. Yet in many other
ways, his thought is intrinsically alien to
its discourse. As much was at times
apparent even to Derrida who stated that
it is necessary to read Bataille against himself. Similar doubts have also been voiced
by Baudrillard and Foucault. Yet this has
not prevented Bataille's thought from
being appropriated as part of the poststructuralist discourse.
It is true that Bataille gave both
Baudrillard and Foucault some points of
departure. Baudrillard drew upon Bataille
in his critique of Marxist ideas of consumerism, and his idea of seduction has a
provocative quality that recalls Bataille.
Yet there is a cynical side to Baudrillard
that leads him to vulgarize his argument
by reducing it to a level of derision in
which the only thing that is real is the
reproduction of signs.
Foucault's attraction to Bataille was
founded in the idea of transgression. In
this respect, Bataille opened up a fertile
path for Foucault to follow. Yet Foucault
conceived transgression in quite a different way to Bataille. He saw it as a subversive subtext within modern society. It
refers to whatever has the effect of dissolving categories and resisting essentializing processes. As such, it provided a key
to understanding how discourse had
taken the shape it has and so provides a
means by which to resist the universalizing
processes that lie at the root of humanist

Georges Bataille

tenets. This provides the background to

Foucault's concept of power, which is
seen as diffuse, arising from an ungraspable, abstract play of contingencies. It
upholds a pluralistic view that denies dialectical resolution (indeed, in his text on
Bataille, he sees transgression as providing almost an antidote to dialectical thinking). This could hardly be further from
Bataille, who saw transgression as being
irrevocably and dialectically tied to an
initial interdiction. In this respect,
Bataille's understanding of social relationships is in line with the complicity that
Hegel saw as central to the master and
slave relation which for Foucault was fundamentally erroneous. In Bataille's view
transgression was a communal dynamic
that, far from being realized in modern
society, was fast vanishing. It was part of
the sacred which the forward thrust of
capitalism must shatter if it is to realize
itself and which it is unable to contain.
This is because, for Bataille, transgression
does not subvert the taboo but completes
and reinforces it. This does mean that it is
a simple bolster for the taboo: Bataille's
thinking is not a roundabout way of legitimating authority and the law. Quite the
contrary: the purpose of transgression is
to challenge the taboo, to ensure that it
retains a dynamic force and is not reduced
to the level of xed laws. The taming of
the sacred and of transgression in modern
society is thus a triumph of a law that is
inexorable rather than subject to transgressive forces.
Plurality of being is what matters above
all to Foucault and this represents a crucial
difference with Bataille, whose analysis is
founded in an assumption of universality
and a will towards totality. This is precisely
what Foucault sees as being the core component of the false analysis of power relations, especially that which is founded on
the Hegelian dialectic. Crucially, Foucault
believed that power relations could be
unpicked. He seems to have conceived
himself as a safebreaker able to crack the
combination that maintains the existing
state of things. Bataille, on the other
hand, saw social relations as founded in


a movement that is unknowable (as it

stands outside the concept of understanding) and there could never be any
possibility of their being `remade'. It
was thus the complicity at the heart of
the masterslave dialectic that provided
the key for an understanding of power
relations, not a breaking down of their
structures. And it was transformation,
not deconstruction, that was the focus
for change as Bataille saw it.
From this point of view, too, the idea
that Bataille was in some way concerned
with a critique of reason is also a misconception. This is the opinion of Jurgen
Habermas. Yet if Bataille's thought is
rooted in a suspicion of the Western tradition of rational thought, this does not
mean that he was concerned to undermine
reason itself. He was more interested in
revealing the limitations of Western, and
especially French, traditions of rationality.
There exists a considerable gulf
between Bataille and the ideas about the
nature of reality that are associated with
post-structuralism and its concern with
discursive structures and signs. This distrust of meta-narrative leads to a refusal to
engage with the moral centre that founds
any idea of human society. Life is perceived as a top that spins endlessly on
itself and offers no escape from its gyratory motion. It may be true that in Bataille
too there is no escape from its paradox,
but this does not mean that life is simply
a plurality of endless possibilities turning
on themselves. If there is no prospect of
transcendence or salvation, this is because
we are beings who are conned to a limited frame that denes our humanness.
But as humans we are only a small part
of the potentiality of existence. The continuity of existence remains present all
around us. We may not be able to conceive
of its heterogeneous possibilities, but we
do gain glimpses of them in moments of
dissolution. And we have a duty as
humans to follow up such glimpses,
wherever they might lead.
What one fails to detect in almost all of
the writings about Bataille emerging from
the post-structuralist and postmodernist


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

stable is any tone of intimacy or discretion.

Most of these texts are raucous; they bring
attention to themselves and proclaim their
transgressions in a way that Bataille
would without much doubt have found
In many ways, Bataille is a modest
thinker. He made no claim to be able to
explain the world, or even the small part
of it of which he had experience. This
makes him difcult to place as a social
theorist. Yet even if, by bringing attention
to the idea of nonknowledge, he undermined the path of pure knowledge that
Western thought has tended to see as the
route to enlightenment, he still upheld the
signicance of the quest for understanding in the widest sense. In this respect, his
method has a good deal in common with
Adorno's call for a negative dialectic.
In bringing attention to the way that all
knowledge is, in the end, delusory,
Bataille shows how it is ultimately impossible to grasp the essence of any person's
thought. Any account that aims to reduce
someone's life to a few words is therefore
to be treated with caution. Including, no
doubt, this one.
Bataille's writings are available in the 12 volumes of
his Oeuvres Completes (197188) Paris: Gallimard.
The contents are as follows:
Volume I: Early Writings, 192240, Histoire de l'oeil,
L'Anus solaire, Sacrices, Articles.
Volume II: Posthumously Published Writings, 192240.
Volume III: Literary Works, Madame Edwarda, Le Petit,
L'Archangelique, L'Impossible, La Scissiparite, L'Abbe
C, L'Etre indifferencie n'est rien, Le Bleu du ciel.
Volume IV: Posthumously Published Literary Works,
Poems, Le Mort, Julie, La Maison brulee, La Tombe de
Louis XXX, Divinus Deus, Ebauches.
Volume V: La Somme Atheologique 1, L'Experience interieure, Methode de Meditation, Le Coupable, L'Alleluiah.
Volume VI: La Somme Atheologique 2, Sur Nietzsche,
Volume VII: L'Economie a la mesure de l'univers, La Part
maudite, La Limite de l'utile, Theorie de la religion,
Conferences 194748.
Volume VIII: L'Histoire de l'erotisme, Le Surrealisme au
jour le jour, Conferences 195153, La Souverainete.
Volume IX: Lascaux ou la naissance de l'art, Manet, La
Litterature et le Mal.

Volume X: L'Erotisme, Le Proces de Gilles de Rais, Les

Larmes d'Eros.
Volume XI: Articles, 194449.
Volume XII: Articles, 195061.
In addition, his letters to Roger Caillois are available
Bataille, G. (1987) Lettres a Roger Caillois. Rennes:
Editions Folle Avoine.
He is the subject of an excellent biography: Michel
Surya (1987) Georges Bataille: la mort a l'oeuvre Paris:
Garamont. Jean-Paul Sartre's essay, `Un nouveau
mystique' is to be found in the journal Cahiers du
Sud (1943) and is reprinted in Situations 1 Paris:
Gallimard, 1947.

English Translations
Bataille, G. (1955a) Manet (Trans. Austryn Wainhouse
& James Emmons). Geneva: Skira; London:
Bataille, G. (1955b) Prehistoric Painting: Lascaux or the
Birth of Art. (Trans Austryn Wainhouse). Geneva:
Skira; London: Macmillan.
Bataille, G. (1956) The Beast At Heaven's Gate
(Madame Edwarda) (Trans. Austryn Wainhouse).
Paris: Olympia Press.
Bataille, G. (1962) Eroticism. (Trans Mary Dalwood).
London: Calder & Boyars; (1986) San Fransisco:
City Lights; (1987) London: Marion Boyars.
Bataille, G. (1972) My Mother. (Trans. Austryn
Wainhouse). London: Jonathan Cape.
Bataille, G. (1973) Literature and Evil (Trans. Alastair
Hamilton). London: Calder & Boyars.
Bataille, G. (1977) The Story of the Eye. (Trans. Joachim
Neugroschel). New York: Urizen Books; (1979)
London: Marion Boyars; (1982) Harmondsworth:
Bataille, G. (1979) Blue of Noon (Trans. Harry
Matthews). London: Marion Boyars.
Bataille, G. (1983) L'Abbe C. (Trans. Philip A. Facey).
London: Marion Boyars.
Bataille, G. (1985) Visions of Excess: Selected Writings
19271939. (Trans. Allan Stoekl). Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
Bataille, G. (1986) `Writings on laughter, sacrice,
Michelson), October, 36, Spring.
Bataille, G. (1988a) Inner Experience (Trans. Leslie
Anne Boldt). Albany: State University of New York.
Bataille, G. (1988b) Guilty. (Trans Bruce Boone).
Venice, CA: Lapis Press.
Bataille, G. (1988c) The Accursed Share. (Trans Robert
Hurley). New York: Zone Books.
Bataille, G. (1988d) Theory of Religion. (Trans Robert
Hurley). New York: Zone Books.
Bataille, G. (1989b). The Tears of Eros. (Trans. John
Connor). San Fransisco, CA: City Lights.
Bataille, G. (1989b) My Mother, Madame Edwarda, The
Dead Man. (Trans. Austryn Wainhouse). London:
Marion Boyars.

Georges Bataille
Bataille, G. (1991a) The Impossible. (Trans. Robert
Hurley). San Fransisco, CA: City Lights.
Bataille, G. (1991b) The Trial of Gilles de Rais. (Trans
Robert Robinson). Los Angeles, CA: Amok.
Bataille, G. (1992) On Nietzsche (Trans. Bruce Boone).
London: The Athlone Press.
Bataille, G. (1994) The Absence of Myth. (Trans.
Michael Richardson). London: Verso.
Bataille, G. (1997) The Bataille Reader (ed. Fred Botting
and Scott Wilson). Oxford: Blackwell.
Bataille, G. (1998) Georges Bataille: Essential Writings
(ed. Michael Richardson). London: Sage.

Blanchot, Maurice (1997) `Friendship', in Friendship.
(Trans. Elizabeth Rottenberg). Stanford, CA:
Stanford University Press.
Bois, Yve-Alain and Krauss, Rosalind (1997) Formless:
A User's Guide. New York: Zone Books.
Boldt-Irons, Leslie Anne (ed.) (1995) On Bataille:
Critical Essays. Albany, NY: SUNY.
Botting, Fred and Wilson Scott (eds) (1998) Bataille: A
Critical Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.
Brotchie, A. (ed) (1995) Encyclopaedia Acephalica.
(Trans. Iain White). London: The Atlas Press.
Brown, Norman O. (1991) `Dionysus in 1990' in
Apocalypse And/Or Metamorphosis. Berkeley, CA:
University of California Press.
Buck, P. (ed,) (1984) Violent Silence. London.
Calas, Nicolas (1945) `Acephalic mysticism', Hemispheres II, 6. Reprinted in (1985) Transgurations:
Art Critical Essays in the Modern Period. Ann
Arbor, MI: UMI Research Press.
Dean, Carolyn J. (1992) The Self and its Pleasures:
Bataille, Lacan and the History of the Decentered
Subject. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
Derrida, Jacques (1978) `From restricted to general
economy: a Hegelianism without reserve', in
Writing and Difference. (Trans. Alan Bass).
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Foucault, Michel (1977) `Preface to transgression', in
his Language, Counter-Memory, Practice: Selected
Essays and Interviews. (ed. and trans. Donald
Bouchard and Sherry Simon). Ithaca, NY: Cornell
Univerisity Press.


Gill, Carolyn Bailey (ed.) (1995) Bataille: Writing the

Sacred. London: Routledge.
Hollier, Denis (1990) Beyond Architecture. (Trans.
Betsy Wing). Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Habermas, Jurgen (1987) `Between eroticism and
general economics: Georges Bataille,' in The
Philosophical Discourse of Modernity. (Trans.
Frederick Lawrence). Oxford: Polity Press.
Hollier, D. (ed.) (1988) The College de Sociologie (1937
39). (Trans. Betsy Wing). Minneapolis: University
of Minnesota Press.
Laure (1995) The Collected Writings (Trans. Jeanine
Herman). San Fransisco, CA: City Lights.
Leiris, Michel (1989) `From the impossible Bataille to
the impossible Documents', in Brisees: Broken
Branches (Trans. Lydia Davis). San Fransisco, CA:
North Point Press.
Libertson Joseph (1982) Proximity: Levinas, Blanchot,
Bataille and Communication. The Hague: Martinus
Michelson, Annette (1986) `Heterology and the critique of instrumental reason', October, 36: 11128.
Pefanis, Julian (1991) Heterology and the Postmodern:
Bataille, Baudrillard, Lyotard. Durham, NC &
London: Duke University Press.
Richardson, Michael (1994) Georges Bataille. London:
Richman, Michele (1982) Beyond the Gift: Reading
Georges Bataille. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins
University Press.
Shaviro, Steven (1990) Passion and Excess: Blanchot,
Bataille, and Literary Theory. Tallahassee: Florida
State University Press.
Sollers, Philippe (1983) `The roof', in Writing and the
Experience of Limits. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Sontag, Susan (1967) `The pornographic imagination',
in Styles of Radical Will. London: Secker & Warburg.
Stoekl, Allan (ed.) (1990) On Bataille, Special issue of
Yale French Studies, 78.
Suleiman, Susan Rubin (1986) `Pornography, transgression and the avant-garde: Bataille's Story of
the Eye', in Nancy K. Miller (ed.) The Poetics of
Gender. New York: Columbia University Press.
Weiss, Allen S. (1986) `Impossible sovereignty:
Between the will to power and the will to chance',
October, 36: 12946.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

I belong to a generation of people for whom the horizon of reection was

dened by Husserl in general, Sartre more precisely, and Merleau-Ponty
even more precisely.
(Foucault 1988a: 141).

hough overshadowed in the public

eye by his colleague and intellectual sparring partner, Sartre,
Merleau-Ponty was very much at the centre of French intellectual life in the 1940s
and 1950s. Eribon (1991), for example,
writes of the great enthusiasm for his
work amongst Parisian students, including a young Foucault and other edgling
intellectuals. Furthermore, it is notable
that central structuralist writers, who condemned the work of Sartre, exempted
Merleau-Ponty from their critiques and
even spoke of what they had learned
from him. Althusser (1994) is one example
and Levi-Strauss, who dedicated The
Savage Mind to Merleau-Ponty, is another.
Born in 1908, Merleau-Ponty graduated
from the Ecole Normale Superieure in
1930, subsequently taking a lecturing post
there, before moving on to the Sorbonne
and, later, the College de France. He was,
for a short time, the political editor of
Les Temps Modernes and, like many of the
key French thinkers of his day, attended

and was greatly inuenced by Kojeve's

famous lectures on Hegel. He died, somewhat prematurely and unexpectedly, in
May 1961.
If his work is to be pigeon-holed then
`existential phenomenology' is the most
appropriate slot. The Phenomenology of
Perception, which is his most famous and
arguably his best work, is a study in existential phenomenology par excellence. As
I show in this chapter, however, his work
draws upon a much wider range of
sources than this label might suggest,
addressing issues and contributing to
debates far removed from the conventional
phenomenological paradigm. Moreover,
even at his most technical, philosophical
moments, Merleau-Ponty was always
alive to the events in his own historical
milieu, and always keen to bring his philosophy to bear upon these events. In particular he, like many of the French
existentialists, was profoundly inuenced
by the impact of the Nazi occupation of
France during the Second World War, and
the related problem of collaboration which
the French public began to address in the
immediate aftermath of the liberation.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

Along with many other intellectuals

Merleau-Ponty had actively resisted occupation. His postwar reections on the issue
and on the role of the collaborators are
notably less bold than those of many
others, however. What the French learned
from collaboration was `history', he
argued. That is, they learned of the interconnectedness of their own lives with
those of others and the ways in which
this shapes both their ways of making
sense of the world, their opportunities,
and the constraints they must circumnavigate. They learned that the meaning and
morality of their actions are derived not
from the action itself but from the place it
assumes in a constantly shifting and sometimes unpredictable social whole. It is this
sense of `history' which he attempts to convey in so many of his best philosophical
Sociological interest in Merleau-Ponty's
work has grown recently, largely as a consequence of a developing concern with
issues of embodiment and the body
issues about which Merleau-Ponty says a
great deal. There is clear evidence of a
Merleau-Ponty inuence within sociology
and social theory before this time, however, specically in the broadly `phenomenological' traditions. Much of the early
reception of Merleau-Ponty's work in the
English speaking world was shaped by
the seminal contributions of the sociologist and social theorist John O'Neill.
O'Neill both translated a number of
Merleau-Ponty's texts and offered his
own critical exegesis and development
of them in many central works, including
Perception, Expression and History, Sociology
as a Skin Trade, and The Communicative
Body (O'Neill, 1970, 1972, 1989).
Merleau-Ponty's rst major work, The
Structure of Behaviour, is best regarded as
a contribution to the philosophy of biology and psychology. It is informed by
the work of Hegel and Husserl, both of


whom would remain central reference

points in all of his writing, but the inuence of the gestalt psychologists is even
more evident. Though problematic in
some respects, in his view, their theories
and ndings, not least their commitment
to a structural-holistic position, have
important philosophical implications.
The key achievement of The Structure of
Behaviour is to posit a strong critique of
mechanistic and reductionist accounts of
human behaviour and to develop a clear
conception of `the human order' as a distinct and irreducible level of reality.
Next came The Phenomenology of
Perception. This text is more obviously
`phenomenological' and picks up on the
three central themes that had emerged in
the later writings of Husserl: habitus,
embodiment, and history. In The Crisis of
the European Sciences, Husserl (1970) had
argued that we need to examine the
world of immediate experience, the
world as we experience it prior to scientic objectication. This is what MerleauPonty does, establishing in particular the
corporeal nature of that experience.
Science encourages us to think of `the
body' as an object, he argues, but we discover a very different body in our experience. Our bodies are not given to us as
objects. Rather, we are our bodies. They
are our very way of being-in-the-world
and they thereby `give' us a world.
Reinterpreting the Husserlian conception
of intentionality, he then considers the
multiple ways in which the world appears
for us by way of our corporeal dispositions and activities. Moreover, he argues
that this same embodied experience
underlies and makes possible the work
of the scientist, whatever they might say
about `the body' as a physical object.
Even as he does this, however, MerleauPonty adds a curious twist to the
Husserlian project, by incorporating the
ndings of the human sciences, particularly psychology, in his discussion.
Husserl had warned against any such incorporation, arguing that it would reduce
knowledge claims to their alleged psychological `causes', displacing questions of


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

their validity and, at the same time,

undermining its own claim to truth. The
practice of the human sciences for Husserl
raises epistemological questions whose
answers must be resolved without
recourse to the claims of those sciences if
circularity is to be avoided. In addition, he
claims that the human sciences cannot
nd solutions to these epistemological
questions as they reduce human subjects
to the status of empirical objects. MerleauPonty takes a different view, however. He
believed that `modern' psychology, which
for him meant gestalt psychology, was
arriving at many of the same conclusions
as phenomenology and, in essence,
accorded a similar degree of respect to
the structure of (embodied) `consciousness'. This paved the way, in his view, for
a dialogue between the two. Moreover,
he argued that one could not ignore the
ndings of science, as more abstract and
intellectualist philosophies tended to do.
Experiments, he believed, were no less
valuable sources for philosophical reection than introspection and could, in fact,
teach us things that we could not discover
by way of introspection.
Substantively, Merleau-Ponty's investigation of embodiment stresses two key
points. On the one hand, he seeks to
emphasize that our body is our `point of
view on the world'. All experience is
necessarily perspectival, he maintains,
and our bodies are our perspective. The
other side of this claim is that our embodiment necessarily entails worldliness; our
bodies involve us in the world and we are
always already engaged in it, so much so
that body and world should be deemed
elements of a single system. Secondly,
following on from this, Merleau-Ponty's
conception of the body is profoundly
holistic. Whether discussing sexuality,
perception, or motor behaviour, he is
always concerned to reveal their interrelatedness within the bodyworld whole.
Logocentrism and the Lived World
For Merleau-Ponty, the world as it is
revealed through lived bodily experience

is not the objective world of the scientist. It

is preobjective and prereective; a practical world which we have a grasp upon,
literally as well as metaphorically, but
which we do not, in the rst instance,
`know' in a conceptual or intellectual
manner. The `space' that we live in and
through is not that described by geometry,
for example. It is an oriented and practical
space centred around our own corporeal
agency, with its capacities and projects; a
space of `ups', `downs', `highs', and `lows'
which we `know' in the form of a feel we
have for it and a capacity to move within
it. Following Husserl's Crisis, MerleauPonty identies this `lifeworld' as fundamental, suggesting that the objective world
of science rests upon it. Geometrical space,
for example, is an idealization erected
upon the foundation of lived space. Like
Husserl, however, Merleau-Ponty also
believes that we live in a logocentric era
(not a word he actually uses) in which the
derivative idealizations of science are
taken to be more real than the fuzzy realities of the lifeworld. Thus, his investigations of the lived world are not simply
descriptions of a primordial level of
experience but equally critiques of logocentrism and the excesses of scientic
objectivism. From a sociological point of
view this clearly anticipates Bourdieu's
(1977, 1992) notion of the `fuzzy logic' of
practice, offering a somewhat more extensive exploration of the matter than one
nds in Bourdieu.
Habit, Freedom, and Structuration
The Phenomenology of Perception also
builds upon and takes issue with the
work of Sartre (1969), whose Being and
Nothingness blended Husserlian and
Hegelian phenomenologies in a very distinctive way. Sartre had posited a peculiarly radical conception of freedom in
his work, which effectively suggested
that everything human beings are and
do, qua humans, can be explained in
these terms. Merleau-Ponty nds this problematic. It renders the notion of freedom
unintelligible, he argues. In the rst

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

instance, any meaningful conception of

freedom necessitates a notion of choice,
but choice presupposes a prior engagement with and belongingness to the
world. To choose we must always already
experience our position within the world
as a meaningful site of predelineated possible actions, we must have preferences
upon which to base our choice, and we
must have taken-for-granted means of
deliberation and decision making at our
disposal. None of these preconditions
can themselves be chosen, however, at
least not in the nal instance, precisely
because they are prerequisites. They
must be pregiven and our choices are
therefore necessarily rooted in and shaped
by them. Secondly, our choices must not
simply be rooted in the world; they must
take root in the world if we are to speak
meaningfully of freedom. An individual
who approaches each day or each hour
anew has no freedom as none of their projects would ever come to fruition. Each
momentary burst of free will would
undo the achievements of the one preceding it. True freedom entails that by acting
we commit ourselves, transforming both
ourselves and our circumstances in relatively durable ways which cannot be
simply erased or undone.
The Husserlian notion of habitus
(Husserl, 1972, 1989, 1991), which
Merleau-Ponty renders as `habit', is used
to add weight to both of these arguments,
at the same time building in a third argument, that human subjects necessarily
belong to a social-historical world which
they share in with others and which
shapes their ways of perceiving, thinking,
and acting. Habits, which in their collective form we know as culture or custom,
root us in the world, providing the necessary background of meaning and preference which makes choice possible.
Furthermore, it is our tendency towards
habituation which makes choices meaningful by affording them durability. This
does not imply, as in many psychological
renderings of `habit', a conditioned reex;
nor is it necessarily restricted to simple
behaviours or `bad habits'. Restoring the


more traditional sense of habit (see Camic,

1986) and at the same time anticipating
Bourdieu (1977, 1992), Merleau-Ponty
views habitual action as purposive, meaningful, and `competent'. And he applies it
to a range of higher intellectual and moral
activities. Our disposition to talk and
think in the language of our society is
one clear example of habit for MerleauPonty, for example. Notwithstanding
this, however, habit implies a certain prereective and even prepersonal disposition towards predictable but at the same
time arbitrary patterns of actions. It is the
realm of the taken-for-granted. The process by which our thoughts take shape in
language is not one to which we are privy,
for example. Our thoughts just occur to
us in linguistic form. Furthermore, as the
language example also illustrates, many
of our habits are collective constructions,
passed on through generations, which
function to reproduce both a shared social
world and, of necessity, the agents who
embody that world. The agent, for
Merleau-Ponty as for Husserl (1991), is a
product of habit; and habituation is an
incorporation of social practices into the
subject's `bodily schema', where they
effectively become structures of subjective
None of this seeks to challenge the
notion that human beings are, in a sense,
free. But it suggests a `situated' rather than
an absolute freedom. Human beings
transcend the given by way of their projects, for Merleau-Ponty. They are capable
of both creative action and choice. But
they are always situated within the
world, anchored by their habits, and are
never `suspended in nothingness'. This
renders their actions predictable and
more or less probable and, as such, is far
truer to our sense of history than Sartre's
model. Sartre's philosophy points to an
absurd situation, in Merleau-Ponty's
view, in which any event is equally likely
at any time and we have no reason to suppose that states of affairs might not be
transformed into their opposite at any
moment; dictators might become democrats and stable social orders might


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

explode in revolutionary fervour. The

notion of habit and its cognates, custom
and institution, do not preclude change,
of course. Indeed, they are very much consistent with a processual view of social
life. But they do suggest that changes are
never absolute; that some continuity is
necessary and inevitable. Moreover, they
suggest that radical changes, whether at
the personal or the public level, generally
have a history which allows us to understand and perhaps even sometimes predict them. The durability provided by
habit makes history a process rather than
a series of discontinuous events, in
Merleau-Ponty's view, allowing us to
speak of direction and patterns therein. It
gives history meaning, in the sense of
which Husserl speaks in The Crisis (1970).
It is important to emphasize here that
`situatedness' does not imply causation
or some unholy alliance of causation and
free will. It points to a completely different
way of thinking about agency which
refuses to structure the debate around
these polarities, tracing out a third term
between them which does more justice to
the evidence of reason, experience, and
social science. Causal accounts require
reference to `external' forces, MerleauPonty notes, but the notion of `situation'
implies no such thing. I am not determined by `my body' for the very simple
reason that I am my body and `it' enjoys
no independent existence from me.
Similarly with language, thought, and
speech; language does not determine my
thought or speech any more than they
determine it, for the simple reason that
thought, speech, and language are different aspects of a single form of embodied
This point has an interesting implication that Merleau-Ponty develops in both
early and later essays; namely, that social
structures, such as language, do not exist
independently of the interactions which
embody them. In effect this amounts to
an anticipation of the `structurationist'
theories of Giddens (1984) and, more particularly, Bourdieu (1977, 1992). Action is
said to be rooted in acquired habits or

`institutions'. Indeed, one of the key

themes of Merleau-Ponty's lectures at the
College de France was that the phenomenological notion of the `constituting subject' should be replaced with the notion of
the `instituting subject'; that is, of the subject who bestows meaning upon the world
by way of the institutionalized repertoires
they have acquired from their society
(Merleau-Ponty, 1979b). But these institutions, in turn, have no existence independently of the activities of embodied
agents. Though social institutions predate
individuals and outlive them, it is a mistake to infer from this that they are, in any
meaningful sense, `external' to the human
populations who embody them at any one
The issues of embodied subjectivity and
habituation are central here. The social
world is effectively reproduced by way
of its incorporation within the body, its
sedimentation in the form of habit, and
its subsequent and consequent enactment.
The social is incorporated in and constantly regenerated by the prereective
corporeal schema of the agent. It is in
this sense that Merleau-Ponty was to
claim that:
Our relationship to the social is like our relationship to the world, deeper than any express perception or judgment. It is as false to place ourselves in
society as an object amongst objects as it is to place
society in ourselves as an object of thought, and in
both cases the mistake lies in treating the social as
an object. We must return to the social with which
we are in contact by the mere fact of existing, and
which we carry around inseparably with us before
any objectication. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962: 362)

The social, in other words, is no more

separate from us than our bodies. It is
what we `do'. Integral to this, moreover,
is the notion of the social as an interworld
or intersubjective structure. The social
world is not just what we do but what
we do collectively in the context of social
relations, and our habits are the collective
habits of a shared culture or subculture.
Social relations, as embodied in interactions, constitute the occasion and the
mechanism for the construction, modication, and reproduction of our habits and,

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

at the same time, it is these relations and

the orientations they rest upon that are
reproduced by way of our habits.
The key social relations identied in
The Phenomenology of Perception are class
relations and, in his brief discussion of
them, Merleau-Ponty again emphasizes
the sense in which they are embodied in
habitual ways of being. Such ways of
being are formed in the context of conictual class relations which they then help to
perpetuate. Merleau-Ponty writes:
What makes me a proletarian is not the economic
system or society considered as systems of impersonal forces but these institutions as I carry them
within me and experience them [as habits -NC];
nor is it an intellectual operation devoid of motive,
but my way of being in the world within this institutional framework.
Let us suppose that I have a certain style of living, being at the mercy of booms and slumps, not
being free to do as I like, receiving a weekly wage,
having no control over either the conditions or the
products of my work, and consequently feeling a
stranger in my factory, my nation and my life. I
have acquired the habit of reckoning with a fatum,
or appointed order, which I do not respect but
which I have to humour. (Merleau-Ponty, 1962:

Empiricism and Intellectualism

At a more general level The Phenomenology
of Perception is structured around a dialectical critique of `empiricism' and `intellectualism'. Almost every issue tackled
in the book is approached by way of a
critique of these two traditions. The
empiricism to which Merleau-Ponty refers
in this context comprises both the philosophical tradition of British empiricism and
the behaviourist tradition in psychology.
It understands human beings to be objects
within a world which, itself, is an object.
Intellectualism, by contrast, formulates a
conception of the human subject who
bestows sense upon the world through
constituting acts of consciousness. Kant,
and to some extent Husserl, are the candidates for this school. The latter of these
schools is the most preferable of the two,
for Merleau-Ponty, but it is nevertheless
awed. The relation of human beings to


the world is not, in the rst instance, that

of a subject to an object. It consists, as we
have said, in practical and embodied
engagement. We have a practical `grasp'
upon the world, an embodied knowhow, before we have explicit discursive
knowledge of it and the latter, insofar as
it does arise, necessarily forms upon the
basis of the former. Furthermore, the intellectualist view is awed insofar as it fails
to properly consider our aforementioned
`situatedness': we are situated in a body
which is vulnerable to the physical
forces which may act upon it, a world of
habit and cultural institutions which
structure our perceptions, thoughts, and
actions; and we are always bound up in
various relations of interconnectedness
with others, subject to the dynamics of
intersubjective life and social relations.
Finally, intellectualism is awed insofar as
it focuses exclusively upon the reective
level of consciousness. Following Sartre's
(1957) argument in The Transcendence of the
Ego, Merleau-Ponty argues that consciousness does not necessarily entail
self-consciousness and that, for much of
the time, we are absorbed in what we are
doing and have no real sense of ourselves
at the reective level.
Existential Marxism
At the same time as he wrote The
Phenomenology of Perception, MerleauPonty was writing a number of political
articles. Some of these articles, collected
in Humanism and Terror, addressed the
moral questions raised by the Moscow
Trials, the ctional representation of
those trials in Koestler's Darkness at
Noon, and the problems of collaboration
during the Nazi occupation of France.
Merleau-Ponty was particularly concerned, in this book, with the manner in
which actions acquire meaning through
history. We cannot determine or know
the meaning of our actions when we act,
he argues, since that meaning will depend
upon the place which our actions assume
in a wider schema of history. A wellintentioned act may transpire as the


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

gravest form of treachery if subsequent

events so dictate, and individuals must
be prepared to face the music if this is so.
The broader context of these reections
on history is inuenced by Husserl's
Crisis. Marx is the more immediate and
obvious interlocuter, however, and this
dialogue is even more direct in some of
the essays in Sense and Non-Sense. Here
Merleau-Ponty reads Marx in an existential light, even claiming that `. . . the concrete thinking which Marx calls ``critique''
to distinguish it from speculative philosophy, is what others propound under the
name ``existential philosophy'' ' (MerleauPonty, 1971: 133). Marx's battle with
idealism and materialism, he argues,
mirrors his own battle with intellectualism and empiricism. And he, like Marx,
identies a philosophy of praxis as the
only reasonable way past this unhelpful
dualism. Interestingly, as I have spelled
out in more detail elsewhere (Crossley,
1994), much that he says in this connection
pregures key Althusserian concepts,
such as `relative autonomy' and `structure
in dominance'. Without dismissing the
possibility that economic relations and
dynamics may prove, in fact, to be the
primary driving force of history, shaping
ideological and political practices to a far
greater extent than vice versa, MerleauPonty was determined to rescue
Marxism from the deterministic, reductionist, and mechanistic interpretations
espoused by the French communist
party. He aspired to a philosophy of
history and the social world that gave
due consideration to the `relative autonomy' of specic arenas of practice, particularly art and literature, whilst at the
same time being both praxiological and
In this early writing Merleau-Ponty
adopted what he called a `wait and see'
attitude towards the big questions of
Marxism: that is, actual and potential
revolutions. In his later writing, however,
he clearly did not like what he saw and

refused to wait any longer. In particular

the Korean war and Kruschev's denunciation of Stalin in 1956 persuaded him of the
need to renounce Marxism, which he did
in a number of articles (collectively published in Signs) and, most famously, in
Adventures of the Dialectic. This latter text
reects upon the work of Weber, Trotsky,
Lukacs, Lenin, and Sartre (who had not
yet published the Critique of Dialectical
Reason but whose Communists and Peace
had just been published). Ironically
Sartre was shifting towards Marxism at
this time, when Merleau-Ponty, who had
always been the more political and leftist
of the two, was abandoning it. And
Adventures of the Dialectic involves a
strong, uncompromising, and very long
critique of Sartre's `ultrabolshevism'.
Indeed, this critique occupies almost half
of the book. Sartre's Marxism is just one in
a long line of attempts (`Adventures') to
sustain the Marxist vision in the face of
historical adversity, for Merleau-Ponty,
however. As the tides of history have
turned, so too has the theory been altered
or reinterpreted. This is theoretically
problematic; whilst revisions may be
necessary there reaches a point where
one has to consider whether the theory
ought not simply to be abandoned.
Over and above this, however, he
argued that the continual resurrection
and revision of the theory had allowed it
to serve an ideological function within a
regime of political terror. Deterministic
and voluntaristic versions of Marxism
alike served to fuel the illusion and to
justify the forcing of individuals into a
historical system that was not working
and was quite literally killing many of
In Humanism and Terror Merleau-Ponty
had shocked many by seemingly supporting the Moscow Trials and observing
that all major social transitions involve
bloodshed. By the mid-1950s, however,
he had decided that the USSR (as it was)
could no longer be considered a society in
transition. Its violence was institutionalized, necessary to its own perpetuation
and without any hope of ever becoming

Maurice Merleau-Ponty

any other than what it was. He thus condemned it.

The Adventures of the Dialectic and some
related essays appear to identify the work
of Weber as a possible starting point for
Merleau-Ponty's post-Marxist reconstruction of social theory. What comes through
more strongly, however, is his move in
a more structuralist and even poststructuralist direction. As Foucault (1998b:
21) recalled, Merleau-Ponty was the rst of
the French philosophers to lecture on the
work of Saussure and to reect upon its
philosophical signicance. Indeed, in his
inaugural lecture at the College de
France, in 1953, Merleau-Ponty went as
far as to suggest that the philosophy of
history might be reconstructed using
Saussure's framework. This tendency was
doubtless reinforced by his friendship
with both Levi-Strauss and Lacan and his
interest in their work. He wrote an essay on
Levi-Strauss, and he explored Lacan's
early formulation of `the mirror stage',
tying it back to some of the notions from
gestalt psychology upon which it is based,
in his lectures on child development.
There can be no doubt that MerleauPonty's engagement with these ideas
was enthusiastic and this should perhaps
be less surprising than it sounds with
hindsight. Not only had he been fascinated with the concept of structure from
his very earliest exploration of it in The
Structure of Behaviour, but the dividing
line between structuralism and phenomenology was by no means as sharply
drawn in the Parisian philosophical circles
of the 1950s as they subsequently became
in structuralist social theory. Notwithstanding this, however, Merleau-Ponty's
appropriation of structuralist ideas was
both critical and idiosyncratic. He identied an equal role for langue/parole or structure/action, for example, and certainly
refused to `dissolve man'. I noted earlier
that he anticipated the structurationist
move in social theory and this is evident
in his reading of structuralism. In his


essay on Levi-Strauss, for example, he

For the philosopher, the presence of structure outside us in natural and social systems and within
us as a symbolic function points to a way beyond
the subjectobject correlation which has dominated philosophy from Descartes to Hegel. By
showing us that man is eccentric to himself and
that the social nds its centre only in man, structure particularly enables us to understand how we
are in a sort of circuit with the socio-historical
world. (Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 123)

This passage concedes that the meaning of

human action lies outside of the sphere of
agents themselves; `man', Merleau-Ponty
writes, is `eccentric to himself'. One
obvious example of this would be that
the human speaker must conform to the
law of their language if they are to make
sense either to themselves or to others.
Sense depends upon the structure of language. But the structure of language is not
external to human beings for MerleauPonty. It is an intersubjective structure; an
interworld rooted in shared habits or conventions and modied across time by way
of `coherent deformations'. In this sense, as
he says, `the social nds its centre only in
man'. It is for this reason that MerleauPonty resists the notion that structures
`dissolve man' and maintains, instead,
that they reveal us to be `in a sort of circuit
with the socio-historical world'.
Integral to this is a reservation about
both the theoreticism of structuralism
and its totalizing aspirations. In
Adventures of the Dialectic Merleau-Ponty
criticized the totalizing aspirations of
Marxism as both a theoretical and a political project. Totalizing projects often
become terrorizing projects in the view of
the later Merleau-Ponty. In his discussion
of Levi-Strauss and more particularly
Saussure, these reservations re-emerge in
a different, more philosophical form.
Saussure's `langue' is a theoretical model,
he notes, based upon abstraction from
linguistic praxis. There is a danger within
structuralism that this becomes forgotten,
however, such that the model is taken to
be more real than the praxis and is
afforded primacy over it. It is assumed


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

that structure somehow `determines' practice, which is clearly absurd given that the
only reality the structure has is its partial
realization in practice. Or alternatively, it is
assumed that linguistic agents in some
sense follow the `rules' of language,
which is again absurd as the rules are
quite insufcient to specify action and, in
any case, could not be followed as they are
not known. What Merleau-Ponty appears
to be arriving at here is a critique of structuralism similar to that of Bourdieu (1977,
1992). It is interesting, however, that he
also anticipates one of Derrida's central
critiques of Saussure, albeit taking it in a
different direction. In a diacritical system
of the sort posited by the structuralists, he
notes, the meaning of every word is dependent upon every other and thus ultimately
upon the totality. This is problematic from
two points of view. First, languages are
historical structures, constantly changing,
and are thus never totalized. If meaning
was dependent upon the totality then we
could literally never make sense.
Secondly, the notion of totality is problematic if we consider the users of language.
How could they ever learn to make and
understand meaning in language if meaning is dependent upon the totality of language? One learns rst to use a few
words, with no sense of the whole, and
yet one can make and communicate
sense. Furthermore, one never acquires
the `whole' of language, not least for the
aforementioned reason that the whole is
in a constant ux and cannot ever be
said to be bounded. Merleau-Ponty's
solution to these problems, seemingly, is
to call for a focus on linguistic praxis, the
uses of language. It is in use that the sense
of language is determined and it is therefore to use that we, as philosophers and
social scientists, must look for an understanding of language and meaning.
In terms of social theory, Merleau-Ponty is
perhaps best remembered for his analysis

of human embodiment and the notions of

habit and the lived world which emerge
out of it. This analysis has received much
praise but it has equally been subject to a
range of criticisms. On the one hand, for
example, Habermas (1987: 317) dismisses
Merleau-Ponty in a sentence, with the
claim that he reduces rationality to the
body. On the other, the phenomenology
of the body has been juxtaposed to poststructuralist accounts which, rstly, focus
upon the effects of power on the body
and, secondly, emphasize change and
instability in relation to the body.
Merleau-Ponty's `body' is deemed too
stable and rational. I have criticized both
of these critiques elsewhere (Crossley,
1996b, 1997). Habermas misinterprets
Merleau-Ponty, in my view. His own intersubjective conception of rationality
(Habermas, 1991) was actually pregured
in phenomenology. Husserl's (1991) concern to account for intersubjectivity was
precisely based on a recognition that
rationality presupposes intersubjectivity
(see Crossley, 1996a) and Merleau-Ponty
takes this notion on board even more
strongly. Rationality emerges in the intersubjective interworld for Merleau-Ponty,
and is in no way reducible to individual
bodies. Furthermore, Habermas is too
quick to dismiss the body. Intersubjective
encounters are necessarily embodied and
if they are to be rational too, this necessitates that our embodied state lends itself
to `communicative rationality'. If what
Merleau-Ponty establishes is that our
bodies do lend themselves in this way,
and to some extent I believe this is so,
then Merleau-Ponty may be required
reading for any critical theorist who
wishes to rescue the theory of communicative action from the overly abstract and
disembodied clutches of the universal
In reply to the post-structuralist critics it
is important to point out, rst, that
Merleau-Ponty quite clearly appreciated
that our bodies are `targets' of power,
even if his understanding of power and
of the ways in which it regulates the
body was insufcient:

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
. . . consciousness can do nothing without its body
and can only act upon others by acting upon
their bodies. It can only reduce them to slavery
by making nature an appendix of its body, by
appropriating nature to itself and establishing in
nature its instruments of power. (Merleau-Ponty,
1969: 102)

Moreover, if we want to go beyond the

basic claim that our bodies are targets of
power, to suggest that our bodies are
indeed `disciplined' by power, that is, to
suggest that power is effective to
some degree, then the `stable' body that
Merleau-Ponty posits is necessary on
three counts. First, the application of techniques of power in real contexts of struggle presupposes competent agents who
are sufciently `stable' and co-ordinated
to manage the task. Secondly, discipline
could only get a foothold on the body if
the actions of the body were regular in
some way. A truly unstable body would
be beyond the bounds of discipline or,
indeed, social life. Thirdly, a body that is
disciplined is stable; discipline implies
stability. If we add to this that `bodypower' can only really be an issue of
serious moral concern if we assume that
`bodies', in some respects, embody agents
who might act differently were they not
`invested' by power, then MerleauPonty's phenomenology of the embodied
subject seems to have a strong reply to
post-structuralism. It should be added
that Merleau-Ponty's commitment to a
conception of stable bodily habits which
root our being-in-the-world does not preclude the possibility that bodily ways of
being vary across historical epochs or cultures. Indeed, Merleau-Ponty very much
believes in such variation and, as such,
would doubtless agree with much of
what has been argued with respect to historical variation within post-structuralist
circles. The stability which he identies
in the body is very much that of shortterm, day-to-day continuity.
Notwithstanding this, however, issues
of difference which have been raised
within post-structuralist theories of embodiment do pose more of a problem.
His understanding of the situation of the


subject and of power is very much focused

upon a notion of class (and, to a lesser
extent imperialism), to the detriment of
any other forms of social differentiation
and inequality. Even in his fascinating discussion of sexuality in The Phenomenology
of Perception, for example, issues pertaining to gender and sexual identity are not
discussed. This is not to say that these
issues could not be developed from his
perspective. In her essay, `Throwing Like
a Girl', for example, Young (1980) uses
Merleau-Ponty's framework, combined
with elements of Beauvoir, to develop a
preliminary investigation of female subjectivity and its subjection. Similarly, the
work of Fanon (1986), with its considerable debt to Sartre, might be taken as a
possible starting point for a phenomenological investigation of racialized subjectivity and subjection. These are not
issues which Merleau-Ponty himself pursued, however, and they clearly transcend
his framework as he himself developed it.
In addition, it has been argued by Kruks
(1981) that Merleau-Ponty's later social
theory ran aground. While his early reections on Marxism were both cogent and
instructive, she argues, his later critique
of Marxism was weak and he was able to
develop no realistic alternative. Furthermore, she suggests that the drafts he was
working on at the time of his death, published posthumously as The Visible and the
Invisible, suggest no way out of this. Other
commentators, particularly those who
believe that Merleau-Ponty anticipated
many key themes of postmodern and
post-structuralist thought, tend to take a
different view (see Dillon, 1988, 1991;
Busch and Gallagher, 1992; Johnson and
Smith, 1990). His unnished notes have
become a central focus for them. I am
more in agreement with Kruks, however.
The Visible and the Invisible presents a vague
outline of ideas that could have been developed into a convincing position, but were
not, and which are as problematic exegetically as they are incomplete. They may
well have been models which MerleauPonty, in his predictable dialectical style,
was going to knock down in any case.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Furthermore, though I am more persuaded

than Kruks is by Merleau-Ponty's critique
of Marxism, I agree that it is not clear
where it leads him. Combined with the
fact that Merleau-Ponty's social and political writings were very much a reection
upon his own time, this considerably limits the direct value that his broader social
and political writings may have for today.
Notwithstanding this, however, we can
abstract important philosophical points
from his work which have a contemporary
salience. Kruks (1990) herself, for example,
in a different work, argues that the theory
of `situated subjectivity' provides a clear
and viable path for social and political
theory, between the equally problematic
treatments of subjectivity that one nds in
the work of liberals, such as Rawls (1971),
and the post-structuralists (see also
Whiteside, 1988). While Rawls ab-stracts
subjects from their situations, she argues,
creating a hopelessly unrealistic model of
the moral agent, the post-structuralists
dissolve subjects into their situations to a
point where moral and political discourse
becomes redundant. Merleau-Ponty, by
contrast, maintains a sense of the genuine
tension of a being who is, to cite an earlier
quotation, `in a sort of circuit with the
socio-historical world'.
The sociological value of this notion, as I
have suggested in this chapter, is an
anticipation and exploration of the themes
of `structuration' theories, particularly
that of Bourdieu. Bourdieu (1986) himself
acknowledges the importance of MerleauPonty's work for the transcendence of
sociological dualisms and his indebtedness to Merleau-Ponty is spelled out in
some detail by Bourdieu and Wacquant
in Bourdieu and Wacquant (1992).
Though I do not agree entirely with
Wacquant's account of Merleau-Ponty, I
do agree that much of Bourdieu's work
has a Merleau-Pontyan feel and that the
sophistication of Bourdieu's own position
is only fully appreciated when this is
recognized. I do not agree with the apparent implication of Wacquant's view, however, which is that all that is useful in
Merleau-Ponty is absorbed into Bourdieu.

There can be no doubt that Bourdieu's concepts of power, capital, and eld could
lend considerable sophistication to
Merleau-Ponty's attempts to make sense
of the social world qua `interworld', providing a possible escape route from the
impasse of his later work; or that his
account of the social shaping of the habitus
develops Merleau-Ponty's own reections
on that matter in an important and substantial fashion. Merleau-Ponty's own
work still retains an important phenomenological aspect that is neither contained,
critiqued, nor contradicted by these developments, however, and which remains of
considerable importance. He argued himself, for example, that:
. . . the social, like man himself, has two poles or
facets: it is signicant, capable of being understood from within, and at the same time personal
intentions within it are generalized, toned down,
and tend towards processes, being (as the famous
[Marxist] expression has it) mediated by things.
(Merleau-Ponty, 1964: 114)

What his work has to offer structuration

theory, even today, is a range of insights
from `within' and an account of the
`within' which recognizes and embraces
the notion that there is equally a `without'
and that, as Bourdieu (1992) argues, subjectivity can and should be `objectied' if a
full picture of our being-in-the world is to
be striven for. Like Bourdieu, MerleauPonty identies our habitual ways of
being, our habitus, as a hinge between
subjectivity and an objective social
world. If Bourdieu advances our understanding of the `outside' of that hinge,
then Merleau-Ponty can still advance our
grasp of the inside, and in a way which
complements, rather than contradicts,
Bourdieu. It goes without saying that his
thesis of embodiment is central to this
Main English Translations of
Merleau-Ponty's Work
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1945] 1962) The Phenomenology of
Perception. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1960] 1964) Signs. Evanston, IL:
Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1942] 1965) The Structure of
Behaviour. Northampton: Methuen.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1964] 1968a) The Visible and the
Invisible. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University
Press, Evanston.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1968b) The Primacy of Perception
and Other Essays. Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1947] 1969) Humanism and Terror.
Boston: Beacon.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1948] 1971) Sense and Non-Sense.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1955] 1973) Adventures of the
Dialectic. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1970] 1974a) The Prose of the
World. London: Heinemann.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1974b) Phenomenology, Language
and Sociology: Selected Essays of Maurice MerleauPonty. (ed. John O'Neill). London: Heinemann.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1964] 1979a) Consciousness and
the Acquisition of Language. Evanston, IL:
Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1964] 1979b) Themes From the
Lectures at the College de France. Evanston, IL:
Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. ([1953] 1988) In Praise of Philosophy.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
Merleau-Ponty, M. (1972) Texts and Dialogues. New
Jersey: Humanities Press.

Althusser, L. (1994) The Future Lasts a Long Time.
London: Vintage.
Bannan, J. (1967) The Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty.
New York: Harcourt, Brace and World.
Bourdieu, P. (1977) Outline of a Theory of Practice.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bourdieu, P. (1986) `The struggle over symbolic
order', Theory, Culture and Society, 3(3): 3555.
Bourdieu, P. (1992) The Logic of Practice. Cambridge:
Bourdieu, P. and Wacquant, L. (1992) Invitation to
Reexive Sociology. Cambridge: Polity.
Busch, T. and Gallagher, S. (eds) (1992) MerleauPonty: Hermeneutics and Postmodernism. New
York: SUNY.
Camic, C. (1986) `The matter of habit', American
Journal of Sociology, 91: 103987.
Crossley, N. (1994) The Politics of Subjectivity.
Avebury: Ashgate.
Crossley, N. (1995) `Merleau-Ponty, the elusive body
and carnal sociology', Body and Society, 1(1), 4363.
Crossley, N. (1996a) Intersubjectivity: the Fabric of
Social Becoming. London: Sage.


Crossley, N. (1996b) `Bodysubject/bodypower:

Agency, power and inscription in Foucault and
Merleau-Ponty', Body and Society, 2(1): 99116.
Crossley, N. (1997) `Corporeality and communicative
action', Body and Society, 3(1): 1746.
Dillon, M. (1988) Merleau-Ponty's Ontology. Evanston,
IL: Northwestern University Press.
Dillon, M. (ed.) (1991) Merleau-Ponty Vivant. New
York: SUNY.
Edie, J. (1987) Merleau-Ponty`s Philosophy of Language:
Structuralism and Dialectics. Washington: Centre for
Advanced Research In Phenomenology and
University Press of America.
Eribon, D. (1991) Michel Foucault. Cambridge, MA:
Harvard University Press.
Fanon, F. (1986) Black Skin, White Masks. London:
Foucault, M. (1988a) Foucault Live. New York:
Foucault, M. (1988b) Politics, Philosophy, Culture.
London: Routledge.
Froman, W. (1982) Merleau-Ponty: Language and the Act
of Speech. London: Associated University Presses.
Giddens, A. (1984) The Constitution of Society.
Cambridge: Polity.
Habermas, J. (1987) The Philosophical Discourse of
Modernity. Cambridge: Polity.
Habermas, J. (1991) The Theory of Communicative
Action Vol 1: Reason and the Rationalisation of
Society. Cambridge: Polity.
Husserl, E. (1970) The Crisis of the European Sciences
and Transcendental Phenomenology. Evanston, IL:
Northwestern University Press.
Husserl, E. (1972) Experience and Judgement. Evanston,
IL: Northwestern University Press.
Husserl, E. (1989) Ideas Pertaining to a Pure
Phenomenology: Book Two. Dordrecht: Kluwer.
Husserl, E. (1991) Cartesian Meditations. Dordrecht:
Johnson, G. and Smith, M. (eds.) (1990) Ontology and
Northwestern University Press.
Koestler, A. (1940) Darkness at Noon. Harmondsworth:
Kruks, S. (1981) The Political Philosophy of MerleauPonty. Brighton: Harvester.
Kruks, S. (1990) Situation and Human Existence.
London: Unwin Hyman.
Kwant, R. (1963) The Phenomenological Philosophy of
Merleau-Ponty. Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne.
Kwant, R. (1966) From Phenomenology to Metaphysics.
Pittsburgh, PA: Duquesne.
Langer, M. (1989) Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenology of
Perception. London: Macmillan.
Low, D. (1987) The Existential Dialectic of Marx and
Merleau-Ponty. New York: Peter Lang.
O'Neill, J. (1970) Perception, Expression and History.
Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press.
O'Neill, J. (1972) Sociology as a Skin Trade. London:


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

O'Neill, J. (1989) The Communicative Body. Evanston,

IL: Northwestern University Press.
Rawls, J. (1971) A Theory of Justice. Cambridge, MA:
Rosenthal, S. and Bourgeois, P. (1991) Mead and
Merleau-Ponty: Towards a Common Vision. New
York: SUNY.
Sallis, J. (ed.) (1981) Merleau-Ponty: Perception,
Structure, Language. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Sartre, J-P. (1957) The Transcendence of the Ego. New
York: Noonday Press.
Sartre, J-P. (1969) Being and Nothingness. London:

Schmidt, J. (1985) Maurice Merleau-Ponty: Between

Spurling, L. (1977) Phenomenology and the Social
World; the Philosophy of Merleau-Ponty and its
Relation to the Social Sciences. London: RKP.
Whiteside, K. (1988) Merleau-Ponty and the
Foundations of an Existential Politics. Princeton:
Princeton University Press.
Young, I. (1980) `Throwing like a girl: A phenomenology of feminine bodily comportment,
motility and spatiality', Human Studies, 3:

Herbert Marcuse



erbert Marcuse was born 19 July

1898 in Berlin, Germany. The
son of Carl Marcuse, a prosperous Jewish merchant and Gertrud
Kreslawsky, daughter of a wealthy
German factory owner, Marcuse had a
typical upper-middle class Jewish life
during the rst two decades of the twentieth century, in which Anti-semitism was
not overt in Germany. Marcuse studied in
the Mommsen Gymnasium in Berlin prior
to the Second World War and served with
the German army in the war. Transferred
to Berlin early in 1918, he participated in
the German Revolution that drove Kaiser
Wilhelm II out of Germany and established a Social Democratic government.
After demobilization, Marcuse went to
Freiburg to pursue his studies and
received a PhD in literature in 1922 for a
dissertation on The German Artist-Novel.
After a short career as a bookseller in
Berlin, Marcuse returned to Freiburg and
in 1928 began studying philosophy with
Martin Heidegger, then one of the most
signicant thinkers in Germany.
In his rst published articles, written
from 192833 when he was studying

with Heidegger in Freiburg, Marcuse

developed a synthesis of phenomenology,
existentialism, and Marxism, anticipating
a project which decades later would be
carried out by various `existential' and
`phenomenological' Marxists, such as
Jean-Paul Sartre and Maurice MerleauPonty, as well as others in Eastern
Europe and the United States in the postwar period. Marcuse contended that
Marxist thought had deteriorated into a
rigid orthodoxy and needed concrete
`phenomenological' experience of contemporary social conditions to update
and enliven the Marxian theory, which
had neglected social, cultural, and psychological analysis in favour of focus on
economic and political conditions. He
also believed that Marxism neglected the
problem of the individual, and throughout his life was concerned with personal
liberation and happiness, in addition to
social transformation.
Marcuse published the rst major
review in 1932 of Marx's recently printed
Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of
1844, anticipating the later tendency to
revise interpretations of Marxism from
the standpoint of the works of the early
Marx. Marcuse was thus one of the rst
to see the importance of the philosophical


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

perspectives of the early Marx on labour,

human nature, and alienation which he
thought were necessary to give concrete
substance to Marxism. At the same time
that he was writing essays synthesizing
Marxism and phenomenology, Marcuse
completed a study of Hegel's Ontology
and Theory of Historicity (1932), which he
intended as a Habilitation dissertation that
would gain him university employment.
The text stressed the importance of the
categories of life and history in Hegel
and contributed to the revival of interest
in Hegel that was taking place in Europe.
In 1933, Marcuse joined the Institut
fur Sozialforschung (Institute for Social
Research) in Frankfurt and became one
of the most active participants in their
interdisciplinary projects (see Kellner,
1989; Wiggershaus, 1994). Marcuse deeply
identied with the work of the Institute,
and throughout his life was close to
Max Horkheimer, T.W. Adorno, Leo
Lowenthal, Franz Neumann, and its
other members. In 1934, Marcuse a Jew
and radical ed from Nazism and emigrated to the United States where he lived
for the rest of his life. The Institute was
granted ofces and an academic afliation
Marcuse worked during the 1930s and
early 1940s. His rst major work in
English, Reason and Revolution (1941),
introduced the ideas of Hegel, Marx,
and German social theory to an Englishspeaking audience. Marcuse demonstrated the similarities between Hegel
and Marx, and argued for discontinuities
between Hegel's philosophy of the state
and German Fascism, placing Hegel
instead in a liberal constitutional tradition
political and theoretically as a precursor of
critical social theory.
In December 1942, Marcuse joined the
Ofce of War Information as a senior
analyst in the Bureau of Intelligence.
He prepared a report that proposed
ways that the mass media of the allied
countries could present images of German
Fascism. In March 1943, Marcuse transferred to the Ofce of Strategic Services
(OSS), working until the end of the war in

the Research and Analysis Division of the

Central European Branch. Marcuse and
his colleagues wrote reports attempting
to identify Nazi and anti-Nazi groups
and individuals in Germany and drafted
a `Civil Affairs Handbook' that dealt with
denazication (see the texts collected in
Marcuse, 1998). In September 1945, he
moved over to the State Department
after the dissolution of the OSS, becoming
head of the Central European bureau, and
remained until 1951 when he left
Government service, following the death
of his rst wife Sophie Wertheim Marcuse;
they had married in 1923 and had one
child, Peter Marcuse.
After working for the US government
for almost 10 years, Marcuse returned to
university life. He received a Rockefeller
Foundation grant to study Soviet
Marxism, lecturing on the topic at
Columbia during 195253 and Harvard
from 195455. At the same time, he was
intensely studying Freud and published
in 1955 Eros and Civilization, a philosophical synthesis of Marx and Freud
which used Freud's categories to provide
a critique of bourgeois society and to
sketch the outlines of a nonrepressive
society. The book was well-received and
anticipated many of the values of the
1960s counterculture, helping to make
Marcuse a major intellectual and political
force during that turbulent decade.
In 1955, Marcuse married his second
wife, Inge Werner Marcuse, the widow
of his friend Franz Neumann who had
died in a car crash the year before. In
1958, Marcuse received a tenured position
at Brandeis University, and the same year
published a critical study of the Soviet
Union (Soviet Marxism) which broke the
taboo in his circles against speaking critically of the USSR and Soviet communism.
Stressing the differences between the
Marxian theory and the Soviet version
of Marxism, Marcuse provided a sharp
critique of Soviet bureaucracy, culture,
values, and system. Yet he also distanced
himself from those who believed Soviet
communism to be incapable of reform
and democratization, and pointed to

Herbert Marcuse

potential `liberalizing trends', which

countered the Stalinist bureaucracy and
that indeed eventually materialized, leading, however, to the collapse of the Soviet
Union in the 1980s.
In 1964, Marcuse published OneDimensional Man, which is perhaps his
most important work. In 1965, Brandeis
refused to renew his teaching contract
and Marcuse soon after received a position at the University of California at La
Jolla where he remained until his retirement in the 1970s. Throughout the 1960s,
Marcuse supported demands for revolutionary change and defended the new,
emerging forces of radical opposition,
thus winning him the hatred of mainstream academics and conservatives
and the respect of the new radicals. In a
series of pivotal books and articles,
Marcuse articulated New Left politics
and critiques of capitalist societies, including `Repressive Tolerance' (1965), An Essay
on Liberation (1969a), Five Lectures (1970),
and Counterrevolution and Revolt (1972).
During this time, Marcuse achieved
world renown as `the guru of the New
Left', giving lectures and advice to student
radicals all over the world. His work was
often discussed in the mass media and he
became one of the few American intellectuals to gain such attention. Marcuse was
a charismatic teacher, and his students
began to gain academic positions and
further promoted his ideas, thus contributing to his authority and importance.
After the death of his second wife, Inge
Werner Marcuse in 1974, he married his
third wife, Erica Sherover Marcuse, on 21
June 1976. Following the collapse of the
New Left, Marcuse dedicated much of
his later work to aesthetics and his nal
book, The Aesthetic Dimension (1978),
contains a defence of the emancipatory
potential of aesthetic form. Marcuse
undertook one last trip to Germany
where he lectured on topics including
the Holocaust, ecology, and the fate of
the Left; he suffered a severe heart attack
and died in Starnberg on 29 July 1979.
Since his death, Marcuse's inuence has
waned, surpassed, perhaps, by his


Benjamin and the emergence of new
modes of thinking, such as those found in
post-structuralist and postmodern theory.
World renowned during the 1960s as a
theorist of revolution, it is perhaps as a
philosopher and social theorist that
Marcuse remains an important intellectual gure. Accordingly, in this chapter I
will present Marcuse as a theorist who
attempted to develop a synthesis of philosophy, critical social theory, and political
activism in specic historical conjunctures, and will focus on delineating what
I take to be his contributions, limitations,
and enduring legacy.
Marcuse's thought was intimately shaped
by his work with the Institute for Social
Research (193342). The Institute was
founded in Frankfurt, Germany, during
the 1920s as the rst Marxist-oriented
research institute in Europe. Under the
directorship of Max Horkheimer, who
assumed his position in 1930, the
Institute developed a conception of critical
social theory which they contrasted
with `traditional theory'. `Critical theory'
combined philosophy, social theory, economics, cultural criticism, psychology,
and other disciplines in an attempt to
develop a theory of the present age. This
project involved developing analyses of
the new stage of state and monopoly capitalism, of the role of mass communication
and culture, of the decline of the individual, and of the institutions and effects of
German Fascism. Marcuse participated in
all of these projects and was one of the
central and most productive participants
in the Institute.
In addition, the Institute for Social
Research developed critiques of dominant
theories and concepts of bourgeois ideology, philosophy, and social science, culminating in a critique of positivism for which
it became distinguished. In his work in the
1930s and 1940s, Marcuse was one of the


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

rst critical theorists of the new forms of

technological and political domination in
the advanced industrial societies. Marcuse
published a series of studies of German
Fascism which argued that it was characterized by tensions between lawlessness
and disorder contrasted with extreme
rationalization and order, thus seeing it
both as an anarchic gangster state that violated systematically both internal and
international law and a highly rationalized system of social organization and
domination. Marcuse also saw National
Socialism as a new kind of state in which
it was difcult to say whether economic or
political factors were primary, combining
economic, political, and technological
domination (see Marcuse, 1998).
In a 1941 article, `Some Social Implications of Modern Technology' (published
in Marcuse, 1998) Marcuse distinguishes
between `technology' (dened `as a
mode of production, as the totality of
instruments, devices and contrivances
which characterize the machine age')
and `technics' (taken as the instruments
and practices `of industry, transportation,
communication'). This distinction demarcates the system of technological
domination from specic technical devices
and their uses (see Marcuse, 1998: 41).
Marcuse thus contrasts technology as an
entire `mode of organizing and perpetuating (or changing) social relationships, a
manifestation of prevalent thought and
behavior patterns, an instrument for control and domination', to technics which
refer to techniques of production and
such instruments as aeroplanes or computers. Whereas the former constitutes
for Marcuse a system of technological
domination, he claims that the latter can
themselves `promote authoritarianism
as well as liberty, scarcity as well as
abundance, the extension as well as the
abolition of toil' (1998: 41).
Marcuse's critique focuses on technology as a system of domination and he presents National Socialism as an example in
which technology and a rationalized
society and economy can serve as instruments of totalitarian domination. But after

documenting in detail the ways that technology and technological rationality promote conformity and erode individuality,
Marcuse concludes his study with a vision
of how technics might produce abundance for all, eliminate the necessity for
excessive toil and alienated labour, and
increase the realm of freedom. Building
on Marx's sketch on automation in the
Grundrisse, Marcuse writes:
Technics hampers individual development only
insofar as they are tied to a social apparatus
which perpetuates scarcity, and this same apparatus has released forces which may shatter the special historical form in which technics is utilized.
For this reason, all programs of an antitechnological character, all propaganda for an anti-industrial
revolution serve only those who regard human
needs as a by-product of the utilization of technics. The enemies of technics readily join forces
with a terroristic technocracy. (Marcuse, 1998: 63)

The latter reference is to those German

theorists like Heidegger (1977) who sharply criticized technology, yet embraced
National Socialism, which in Marcuse's
vision combined a terrorist technocracy
with irrationalist ideology. Unlike the
wholly negative critics of technology,
with whom he is sometimes identied,
Marcuse sketches out a dialectical theory
that avoids both its technocratic celebration as inherently an instrument of liberation and progress, as well as its
technophobic denunciation as solely an
instrument of domination. In the concluding pages, he points to the `possible democratization of functions which technics
may promote and which may facilitate
complete human development in all
branches of work and administration'. In
addition, `mechanization and standardization may one day help to shift the center
of gravity from the necessities of material
production to the arena of free human
realization' (1998: 63).
This dialectical model is important for
studying specic technologies and the
technological society of the present era
since contemporary discourses on technology tend to dichotomize into either technophilic celebrations of the arrival of new
technologies upon which they predicate a

Herbert Marcuse

golden future, or technophobic discourses

which demonize technology as an instrument of destruction and domination.
Marcuse's critical theory of technics/technology, by contrast, differentiates negative
features with positive potentials that
could be used to democratize and enhance
human life. Following Marx's classical
positions, Marcuse envisages the possibility that new technologies could signicantly reduce the working day and
increase the realm of freedom: `The less
time and energy man has to expend in
maintaining his life and that of society,
the greater the possibility that he can
``individualize'' the sphere of his human
realization' (1998: 64). The essay thus concludes with Marcusean utopian speculations on how a new technological society
of abundance and wealth could allow the
full realization of individual potentials
and generate a realm of freedom and
Marcuse thus emerges as an important
theorist of technology, Fascism, and the
vicissitudes of industrial society themes
that he would develop in his post-Second
World War writings. It is perhaps as a
theorist of liberation and domination that
Marcuse is most signicant. His work Eros
and Civilization (1955) attempted an audacious synthesis of Marx and Freud and
sketched the outlines of a nonrepressive
Civilization and its Discontents that civilization inevitably involved repression and
suffering, Marcuse maintained that other
elements in Freud's theory suggested that
the unconscious contained evidence of an
instinctual drive toward happiness and
freedom. This material is articulated,
Marcuse suggests, in daydreams, works
of art, philosophy, and other cultural
products. Based on this reading of
Freud and study of an emancipatory
tradition of philosophy and culture,
Marcuse sketched the outlines of a nonrepressive civilization which would involve
libidinal and nonalienated labour, play,
free and open sexuality, and production
of a society and culture which would
further freedom and happiness. His vision


of liberation anticipated many of the

values of the 1960s counterculture and
helped Marcuse to become a major intellectual and political gure during that
Marcuse contended that the current
organization of society generated `surplus
repression' by imposing socially unnecessary labour, excessive restrictions on sexuality, and a social system organized
around prot and exploitation. In light of
the diminution of scarcity and prospects
for increased abundance, Marcuse called
for the end of repression and creation of
a new society. His radical critique of existing society and its values, and his call for
a nonrepressive civilization, elicited a
dispute with his former colleague Erich
Fromm (1955) who accused him of
`nihilism' (toward existing values and
society) and irresponsible hedonism.
Marcuse (1955) criticized Fromm for
excessive `conformity' and `idealism',
and repeated these charges in the polemical debates over his work following
the publication of Eros and Civilization
which heatedly discussed Marcuse's use
of Freud, his critique of existing civilization, and his proposals for an alternative
organization of society and culture.
While Eros provides the most detailed
depiction of his vision of liberation,
One-Dimensional Man (1964) provides
Marcuse's most systematic analysis of
forces of domination. In this book, he analysed the development of new forms of
social control which were producing a
`one-dimensional man' and `society
without opposition'. Citing trends toward
conformity, Marcuse described the forms
of culture and society that created `false'
consumer needs that integrated individuals into the existing system of production and consumption via mass media,
advertising, industrial management, and
uncritical modes of thought. To `onedimensional society', Marcuse counterpoised critical and dialectical thinking,
which perceived a freer and happier
form of culture and society, and advocated
a `great refusal' of all modes of repression
and domination.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

This book theorized the decline of revolutionary potential in capitalist societies

and the development of new forms of
social control. Marcuse claimed that
`advanced industrial society' created
false needs which integrated individuals
into the existing system of production and
consumption. Mass media and culture,
advertising, industrial management, and
contemporary modes of thought all reproduced the existing system and attempted
to eliminate negativity, critique, and opposition. The result was a `one-dimensional'
universe of thought and behaviour in
which the very aptitude and ability
for critical thinking and oppositional
behaviour was withering away.
Not only had capitalism integrated the
working class, the source of potential
revolutionary opposition, but they had
developed new techniques of stabilization
through state policies and the development of new forms of social control.
Thus Marcuse questioned two of the
fundamental postulates of orthodox
Marxism: the revolutionary proletariat
and inevitability of capitalist crisis. In
contrast with the more extravagant
demands of orthodox Marxism, Marcuse
championed nonintegrated forces of
minorities, outsiders, and radical intelligentsia and attempted to nourish
oppositional thought and behaviour
through promoting radical thinking and
For Marcuse, domination combined
economics, politics, technology and social
organization. While for orthodox Marxists
domination is inscribed in capitalist
relations of production and the logic of
commodication, for Heideggerians,
Weberians, and others it is technology,
technological rationality, and/or political
institutions that are the major force of
societal domination. Marcuse, by contrast,
has a multicausal analysis that ferrets out
aspects of domination and resistance
throughout the social order. Moreover,
Marcuse insisted that contradictions of
the system, theorized by classical
Marxism as the antagonism of capital
and labour, continued to exist, albeit in

altered form. Marcuse constantly cited

the unity of production and destruction,
the ways that creation of wealth produced
systematic poverty, war, and violence.
Hence, for Marcuse there was an `objective
ambiguity' to even the seeming achievements of advanced industrial society
which had the wealth, science, technology,
and industry to alleviate poverty and
suffering, but used the instruments of
production to enhance domination, violence, aggression, and injustice.
In contrast to his Institute colleagues,
however, Marcuse constantly attempted
to politicize critical theory and to detect
forces of resistance and transformation to
counterpose to forces of domination and
repression. After a period of pessimism
during the period of One-Dimensional
Man, Marcuse was encouraged by the
global forces of revolt, centred around
the student and antiwar movement, the
counterculture, national liberation movements, and what became known as `new
social movements'. Marcuse sought in
these forces the instruments of radical
social change that classical Marxism
found in the proletariat.
But just as radical working class movements were defeated in the course of the
twentieth century and the working class,
in Marcuse's view, was integrated into
contemporary capitalism, so too were the
radical movements of the 1960s defeated
or integrated into the triumphant system
of global capitalism. Up until his death,
however, Marcuse continued to seek
agents of social change in new social
movements and in currents of art and
philosophy. As in previous times of
political quiescence during his life,
Marcuse turned to aesthetics for consolation, publishing a series of studies that
resulted in his last published work, The
Aesthetic Dimension (1978). His defence
of `authentic art' was accompanied by criticisms of both Marxist aesthetics that
celebrated `proletarian culture', and contemporary advocacy of `antiart' which
renounced the exigencies of aesthetic
form. For decades, Marcuse had held that
there was a critical tradition of bourgeois

Herbert Marcuse

art which contained powerful indictments

of the society from which it emerged and
emancipatory visions of a better society
accomplishments preserved in aesthetic
form. Throughout his life, Marcuse
defended the importance of `authentic
art' for the project of emancipation and
revolution, and believed that `the aesthetic
dimension' was a crucial component of an
emancipated life.
Marcuse's work in philosophy and social
theory generated erce controversy and
polemics, and most studies of his work
are highly tendentious and frequently sectarian. One-Dimensional Man was severely
criticized by orthodox Marxists and theorists of various political and theoretical
commitments. Despite its pessimism, it
inuenced many in the New Left as it
articulated their growing dissatisfaction
with both capitalist societies and Soviet
communist societies. Moreover, Marcuse
himself continued to foster demands for
revolutionary change and defended the
new, emerging forces of radical opposition.
During the 1960s, when he gained
world renown as `guru of the New Left',
Marcuse was probably the most controversial public intellectual of the day, as
students painted `Marx, Mao, and
Marcuse' on walls, the media debated
his work, and intellectuals of every tendency criticized his views. Identifying
Marcuse with the politics of the 1960s,
however, does him a disservice, as it
covers over his important contributions
to philosophy and social theory, by
reducing his thought to his political
positions of the day.
Reconstructions of Subjectivity
In retrospect, Marcuse carried through a
radical critique of philosophy and social
theory, while developing his own unique
blend of critical theory, which contains
many important contributions. The past


decades have witnessed a relentless

philosophical assault on the concept of
the subject, once the alpha and omega of
modern philosophy. For traditional philosophy, the subject was unitary, ideal, universal, self-grounded, asexual and the
centre of the human being and foundation
for knowledge and philosophy, while for
the post-structuralist and postmodern
critique the human being is corporeal,
gendered, social, fractured, and historical
with the subject radically decentred as an
effect of language, society, culture, and
history. Yet if the construction of the subject in language, the social, and nature is
the key mark of a post-structuralist or
postmodern conception, then Marcuse
and the Frankfurt School are not that antithetical to such perspectives. The entire
tradition of critical theory which draws
on Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, Freud, and
Weber posits the social construction of
the individual, and Hegel, Nietzsche, and
Freud can be read as providing aspects of
theorizing the social construction of the
subject in language. Habermas in particular has followed this motif and has
attacked the philosophy of the subject
while proposing replacing its subject
object model with an egoalter model
that is based upon the ideal of communicative reason (1984, 1987).
In his major philosophical works,
Marcuse undertakes sharp critiques of
the rationalist subject of modern philosophy which he counterposes to notions
of libidinal rationality, eros, and the
aesthetic-erotic dimensions of an embodied subjectivity. Marcuse is part of a
historicist tradition of critical theory
which rejects essentialism and sees subjectivity developing in history, evolving and
mutating, in interaction with specic
Adorno and Horkheimer and the earlier
Frankfurt School tradition, Marcuse also
sees dominant forms of subjectivity as
oppressive and constraining while challenging us to reconstruct subjectivity and
to develop a new sensibility, qualitatively
different from the normalized subjectivity
of contemporary industrial societies. In


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

particular, Marcuse was engaged in a lifelong search for a revolutionary subjectivity, for a sensibility that would revolt
against the existing society and attempt
to create a new one.
Against the notion of the rational,
domineering subject of modern theory,
Marcuse posits a subjectivity that is evolving, developing, striving for happiness,
gratication, and harmony. Such subjectivity is always in process, is never xed
or static, and is thus a creation, an achievement, and a goal, and not an absolute
metaphysical entity. Marcusean subjectivity is also embodied, gendered, oppositional, and struggles against domination,
repression, and oppression, and for freedom and happiness. There is thus nothing
essentialist, idealist, or metaphysical here.
Instead, Marcuse's conception of subjectivity is corporeal, cultivates the aesthetic
and erotic dimensions of experience,
and strives for gratication and harmonious relations with others and nature.
Marcuse's radical subjectivity is also political, refusing domination and oppression,
struggling against conditions that block
freedom and happiness.
Hence, Marcuse contributes important
perspectives for criticizing the traditional
concept of the subject and for rethinking
subjectivity to develop conceptions potent
enough to meet post-structuralist, postmodern, materialist, feminist, and other
forms of critique. Crucially, the assault
on the subject has had serious consequences, for without a robust notion of
subjectivity and agency there is no refuge
for individual freedom and liberation, no
locus of struggle and opposition, and no
agency for progressive political transformation. For these reasons, theorists from
diverse camps, including feminists, multiculturalists, and post-structuralists who
have had second thoughts about the alltoo-hasty dissolution of the subject, have
attempted to rehabilitate the subject, to
reconstruct the discourse of subjectivity
and agency, in the light of contemporary
Marcuse therefore anticipates the poststructuralist critique of the subject and

provides a reconstructed notion of subjectivity. In drawing on Nietzsche, Freud,

and aesthetic modernism, Marcuse posits
a bodily, erotic, gendered, social, and
aestheticized subjectivity that overcomes
mindbody dualism, avoids idealist and
rationalist essentialism, and is constructed in a specic social milieu and is
challenged to reconstruct itself and emancipate itself. Contrasting Habermasian
Marcusean ones help indicate the specic
contributions and strengths, and limitations, of Marcuse's position. While
Marcuse offers a notion of a corporeal subjectivity with an emphasis on its aesthetic
and erotic dimensions, Habermas's communicative reason lacks a body, grounding in nature and materiality, and the
aesthetic and erotic components. That is,
while Habermas's conception of subjectivity contains a grounding in sociality
and egoalter relations, he does not offer
a notion of aesthetic, erotic, and embodied
and sensual subjectivity as in Marcuse's
conception. There is also not as strong a
critique of the tendencies toward conformity and normalization as in Marcuse's
conception, nor is there as forceful a
notion of transformation and emancipation. Nor does Habermas offer a notion
of revolutionary subjectivity.
There are, on the other hand, problems
with Marcuse's conceptions of subjectivity. I have downplayed the extent of
Marcuse's dependence on questionable
aspects of Freud's instinct theory because
I believe that a Marcusean conception of
subjectivity can be constructed without
dependence on Freud's conception of the
political economy of the instincts, the
death instinct, and the somewhat biologistic notion of Eros that Marcuse
draws from Freud. Yet while Marcuse's
focus on the corporeal, aesthetic, erotic,
and political dimensions of subjectivity
constitutes a positive legacy, there are
omissions and deciencies in his account.
Crucially, he underemphasizes the ethical
dimension and in addition does not adequately develop notions of justice and
democracy. Since notions of ethical, just,

Herbert Marcuse

and democratic subjectivity and social

relations are not cultivated in Marcuse's
writings, Habermas's analyses provide
a necessary complement. Habermas's
primary focus on the egoalter relation
and his subsequent treatises on morals
and moral development, democracy and
law, and the social obligations and constraints on subjectivity offer an important
correction to Marcuse's analyses. Hence,
both perspectives on subjectivity by themselves are one-sided and require supplementation by the other.
The New Sensibility and Radical
Marcuse's conception of radical subjectivity involves developing a synthesis of
what he calls `the new sensibility' and
the `new rationality'. Throughout his
later writings, Marcuse was vitally concerned to discover and theorize a `new
sensibility', with needs, values, and
aspirations that would be qualitatively
different from subjectivity in one-dimensional society. To create a new subjectivity,
there must be `the emergence and education of a new type of human being free
from the aggressive and repressive needs
and aspirations and attitudes of class
society, human beings created, in solidarity and on their own initiative, their
own environment, their own Lebenswelt,
their own ``property'' ' (Marcuse, 1969b:
24). Such a revolution in needs and values
would help overcome a central dilemma
in Marcuse's theory sharply formulated
in One-Dimensional Man (hereafter ODM)
that continued to haunt him: `How can
the administered individuals who have
made their mutilation into their own liberties and satisfactions. . . liberate themselves from themselves as well as from
their masters? How is it even thinkable
that the vicious circle be broken?' (1964:
In order to break through this vicious
circle, individuals must transform their
present needs, sensibility, consciousness,
values, and behaviour while developing
a new radical subjectivity, so as to create


the necessary conditions for social transformation (Marcuse, 1970: 67). Radical
subjectivity for Marcuse practices the
`great refusal' valorized in both Eros and
Civilization (hereafter E&C) and ODM. In
E&C (pp. 149ff), the `Great Refusal is the
protest against unnecessary repression,
the struggle for the ultimate form of freedom ``to live without anxiety'' '. In ODM
(pp. 256ff), however, the Great Refusal is
fundamentally political, a refusal of
repression and injustice, a saying no, an
elemental oppositional to a system of
oppression, a noncompliance with the
rules of a rigged game, a form of radical
resistance and struggle. In both cases, the
Great Refusal is based on a subjectivity
that is not able to tolerate injustice and
that engages in resistance and opposition
to all forms of domination, instinctual and
In the late 1960s, Marcuse argued that
emancipatory needs and a `new sensibility' were developing within contemporary society. He believed that in
the New Left and counterculture there
were the beginnings of `a political practice of methodical disengagement and the
refusal of the Establishment aiming at a
radical transvaluation of values' (1969a:
6) that was generating a new type of
human being and subject. The new sensibility `expresses the ascent of the life
instincts over aggressiveness and guilt'
(1969a: 23) and contains a `negation of
the needs that sustain the present system
of domination and the negation of the
values on which they are based' (1970:
67). Underlying the theory of the new sensibility is a concept of the active role of the
senses in the constitution of experience
which rejects the Kantian and other philosophical devaluation of the senses as
passive, merely receptive. For Marcuse,
our senses are shaped and moulded by
society, yet constitute in turn our primary
experience of the world and provide both
imagination and reason with its material.
He believes that the senses are currently
socially constrained and mutilated and
argues that only an emancipation of the
senses and a new sensibility can produce


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

liberating social change (1969a: 24ff, 1972:

62ff; in Marcuse, 1972: 63ff., he connects
his notion of the new sensibility with
the analysis of the early Marx on the
liberation of the senses; his conception is
also inuenced by Schiller's conception of
aesthetic education.)
Instead of the need for repressive performance and competition, the new sensibility posits the need for meaningful
work, gratication and community;
instead of the need for aggression and
destructive productivity, it afrms love
and the preservation of the environment;
and against the demands of industrialization, it afrms the need for beauty, sensuousness, and play, afrming the aesthetic
and erotic components of experience. The
`new sensibility' translates these values
and needs into `a practice that involves a
break with the familiar, the routine ways
of seeing, hearing, feeling, understanding
things so that the organism may become
receptive to the potential forms of a nonaggressive, nonexploitative world' (1969a:
6). This total refusal of the dominant
societal needs, values, and institutions
represents a radical break with the
entirety of the society's institutions, culture and lifestyle, and supplies pregurations of a new culture and society.
The new sensibility required aesthetic
education, which cultivated the senses,
with a `new rationality' that reconstructed
reason and sought a harmony between
mind and body, humans and nature,
man and woman. Art and the aesthetic
dimension thus played a crucial role in
the Marcusean conception of a new sensibility, since art cultivates the senses and
provides reason with images of a better
world, remembrances of past gratication,
and projection of future freedom and
happiness. Both art and eros contained
a `promise of happiness', both were unifying, overcoming oppositions between
mind and body, self and other. Both
refuse repression and are thus potentially
For Marcuse, memory contains images
of gratication and can play a cognitive
and therapeutic role in mental life: `Its

truth value lies in the specic function

of memory to preserve promises and
potentialities which are betrayed and
even outlawed by the mature, civilized
individual, but which had once been fullled in the dim past and which are never
entirely forgotten' (E&C: 1819). In his
reconstruction of Freud, Marcuse suggests
that remembrance of past experiences
of freedom and happiness could put
into question the painful performances of alienated labour and manifold
oppressions of everyday life.
Memory for Marcuse remembers,
reconstructs, experience, going to the
past to construct future images of freedom
and happiness. Whereas romanticism is
past-oriented, remembering the joys of
nature and the past in the face of the
onslaught of industrialization, Marcuse
is future-oriented, looking to the past to
construct a better future. (This conception
might be contrasted with Walter Benjamin
who in his `Theses on the Philosophy of
History' claims that `images of enslaved
ancestors rather than that of liberated
grandchildren' drive the oppressed to
struggle against their oppressors (1969:
260). Benjamin's conception is similar to
Freud's who holds that past traumas
enslave individuals, and argues, in a different register to Benjamin's, that working
through the source of trauma can free
individuals from past blockages and
suffering. A dialectical conception of
memory merging Marcuse and Benjamin
might argue that both remembrances of
past joys and suffering, happiness and
oppression, can motivate construction
of a better future if oriented toward
changing rather than just remembering
the world.) Marcuse's analysis implies
that society trains the individual for the
systematic repression of those emancipatory memories, and devalues experiences
guided solely by the pleasure principle.
Following Nietzsche in the Genealogy of
Morals, Marcuse criticizes `the one-sidedness of memory-training in civilization: the
faculty was chiey directed towards
remembering duties rather than pleasures;
memory was linked with bad conscience,

Herbert Marcuse

guilt and sin. Unhappiness and the threat

of punishment, not happiness and the
promise of freedom, linger in the memory'
(E&C: 232).
Along with memory, Marcuse suggests
that fantasy generates images of a better
life by speaking the language of the
pleasure principle and its demands for
gratication. He stresses the importance
of great art for liberation because it embodies the emancipatory contents of
fantasy and the imagination through producing images of happiness and a life
without anxiety. In Marcuse's view, the
fantasies in our daydreams and hopes
anticipate a better life and embody the
eruption of desires for increased freedom
and gratication. The unconscious on this
account contains the memory of integral
gratication experienced in the womb,
in childhood, and in peak experiences
during one's life. Marcuse holds that the
`psychoanalytic liberation of memory'
and `restoration of phantasy' provide
access to experiences of happiness and
freedom which are subversive of the present life. He suggests that Freud's theory
of human nature, far from refuting the
possibility of a nonrepressive civilization,
indicates that there are aspects of human
nature that are striving for happiness and
Aesthetic education would thus cultivate imagination, fantasy, the senses, and
memory to construct a new sensibility.
The new sensibility would combine the
senses and reason, producing a `new
rationality' in which reason would be
bodily, erotic, and political. Far from
being an irrationalist, Marcuse always
argued that the senses and reason needed
to be mediated, that reason needed to
be reconstructed, and that critical and dialectical thinking were an important core of
the new sensibility. Marcuse always
argued that aesthetic education constituted a cultivation of the senses and
that theory and education were essential
components of transformative social
In the writings of the late 1960s, Marcuse
believed that the new sensibility was


embodied in the liberation movements

of the day, the counterculture, and revolutionary movements (see Marcuse, 1969a).
Of course, he was disappointed that the
new sensibility did not become the agent
of revolution that he sought to replace the
proletariat; he was also dismayed that
the New Left and counterculture fell
prey to the seductions of the consumer
society or were repressed and disintegrated. In the 1970s, however, he sought
precisely the same values and subjectivity in new social movements, in particular feminism, the environmental
movement, peace movement, and various
forms of grass-roots activism which were
eventually described as `new social movements'. In a 1974 lecture on `Marxism and
Feminism', Marcuse notes for the rst
time the constitutive role of gender, and
theorizes the differences between men
and women in terms of his categories in
Eros and Civilization in which the conception of the feminine is associated with the
traits he ascribes to the new sensibility
while the masculine is associated with
the traits of the Western ego and rationality of domination which Marcuse long
criticized, thus anticipating `difference
feminism', which would also valorize the
feminine and maternal against the masculine. (For an argument parallel to mine
developed through an engagement with
French feminism and post-structuralism,
see Kelly Oliver (1998). Oliver provides
an extended argument that we can talk
about subjectivity (and agency) without
presupposing or needing a subject, claiming that subjectivity does not necessarily
imply a `subject' and that we are better
off without such a concept. She develops
notions of subjectivity as relational
and intersubjective at its `centre' and
contrasts varying discourses and forms
of masculine and feminine subjectivity.
This project is parallel, I suggest,
to Marcuse and the Frankfurt School,
disclosing a surprising afnity between
critical theory, French feminism, and
In this article, which generated signicant debate, Marcuse argues that


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

`feminine' values and qualities represent

a determinate negation of the values of
capitalism, patriarchy, and the performance principle. In his view, `socialism,
as a qualitatively different society, must
embody the antithesis, the denite negation of aggressive and repressive needs
and values of capitalism as a form of
male-dominated culture' (1974: 285).
Formulated as the antithesis of the dominating
masculine qualities, such feminine qualities
would be receptivity, sensitivity, nonviolence, tenderness and so on. These characteristics appear
indeed as opposite of domination and exploitation. On the primary psychological level, they
would pertain to the domain of Eros, they would
express the energy of the life instincts, against the
death instinct and destructive energy. (Marcuse,
1974: 285286)

Marcuse was, however, criticized by

women within the feminist movement
and others for essentializing gender difference, although he insisted the distinction was a historical product of Western
society and not an essential gender difference. Women, he argued, possess a `feminine' nature qualitatively different from
men because they have been frequently
freed from repression in the workplace,
brutality in the military, and competition
in the public sphere. Hence, they developed characteristics that for Marcuse are
the marks of an emancipated humanity.
He summarizes the difference between
aggressive masculine and capitalist
values as against feminist values
as the contrast between `repressive productivity' and `creative receptivity', suggesting that increased emancipation of
feminine qualities in the established
society will subvert the dominant masculine values and the capitalist performance
During the same decade, Marcuse also
worked with Rudolf Bahro's conception of
`surplus consciousness', maintaining that
just as Bahro argued that in the socialist
countries a new consciousness was developing which could see the discrepancy
between `what is' and `what could be'
and was not satised with its way of life,

so too was such oppositional consciousness developing in the advanced capitalist

countries. The argument is that:
through the increasing mechanization and intellectualization of labour, [there] accumulates an
increasing quantity of general ability, skills,
knowledge, a human potential which cannot be
developed within the established apparatus of
production, because it would conict with the
need for full-time de-humanized labour. A large
part of it is channelled into unnecessary work,
unnecessary in that it is not required for the construction and preservation of a better society but is
necessitated only by the requirements of a capitalist production.
Under these circumstances, a `counterconsciousness' emerges among the dependent population
(today about 90% of the total?), an awareness of
the ever more blatant obsolescence of the established social division and organization of work.
Rudolf Bahro, the militant East German dissident
(he was immediately jailed after the publication,
in West Germany, of his book The Alternative) uses
the term surplus-consciousness to designate this
(still largely vague and diffused) awareness. He
denes it as `the growing quantity of free mental
energy which is no longer tied up in necessary
labor and hierarchical knowledge'. (Marcuse,
1979: 21; see also Marcuse, 1980)

`Surplus consciousness' in the Bahro

Marcuse conception is a product of
expanding education, scientic and technical development, and renement of the
forces of production and labour process
that at once produce a higher form of consciousness and yet do not satisfy in the
labour process or everyday life the needs
and ideals produced by contemporary
society itself. In effect, Bahro and
Marcuse are arguing that critical consciousness is produced by the very social
processes of the technological society and
that this subjectivity comes into conict
with existing hierarchy, waste, repression,
and domination, generating the need for
social change. This position maintains
that existing social processes themselves
are helping to produce a subjectivity
that demands participation and fullment in the labour process and sociopolitical life, as well as increased
freedom, equality, opportunities for
advancement and development. If these
needs are not satised, Bahro and

Herbert Marcuse

Marcuse suggest, rebellion and social

transformation will be generated.
Marcuse's Legacy
While there are problems with aspects of
Marcuse's theory of revolution (see
Kellner, 1984), he is to be lauded for his
many provocative critiques of the
Marxian theory and for his sustained
attempts to develop new revolutionary
perspectives adequate to the social conditions of contemporary capitalism. Of all
the Marxists of his generation, Marcuse
perhaps went furthest in trying to discover and theorize the subjective conditions of revolution and to develop a
theory of radical subjectivity, while seeking new forces of radical change in the
contemporary situation. In so doing,
he developed a powerful critique of the
philosophical concept of the subject and
an alternative conception of subjectivity.
While some of his formulations were too
closely interwoven with Freud's instinct
theory and the Marxian problematic of
the revolutionary subject, I have argued
that there are other aspects of Marcuse's
thought that avoid such formulations and
that he provides many important contributions to our understanding of subjectivity and agency while challenging us to
further rethink the problematics of subjectivity in relation to the socioeconomic
developments and political struggles of
our own turbulent period. In this way,
the contemporary critiques of the subject
challenge us to come up with better conceptions and to develop new resources for
critical theory and practice.
Although much of the controversy
around Marcuse involved his critiques of
contemporary capitalist societies and
defence of radical social change, in retrospect, Marcuse left behind a complex and
many-sided body of work comparable to
the legacies of Ernst Bloch, Georg Lukacs,
T.W. Adorno, and Walter Benjamin. His
social theory is characterized by broad
critical perspectives that attempt to capture the major sociohistorical, political,
and cultural features of the day. Such


attempts to get at the Big Picture, to theorize the fundamental changes, developments, contradictions, and struggles of
the day are more necessary than ever in
an era of globalization in which the
restructuring of capital and technological
revolution are changing all aspects of life.
Marcuse's thought thus continues to be
relevant because he provides a mode of
global theoretical analysis and addresses
issues that continue to be of relevance to
contemporary theory and politics. His
unpublished manuscripts contain much
material pertinent to contemporary concerns which could provide the basis for a
rebirth of interest in Marcuse's thought
(for examples of the contemporary relevance of Marcuse, see the studies in
Bokina and Lukes, 1994).
Secondly, Marcuse provides comprehensive philosophical perspectives on
domination and liberation, a powerful
method and framework for analysing
contemporary society, and a vision of
liberation that is richer than classical
Marxism, other versions of critical theory,
and current versions of postmodern
theory. Indeed, Marcuse presents critical
philosophical perspectives on human
beings and their relationship to nature
and society, as well as substantive social
theory and radical politics. In retrospect,
Marcuse's vision of liberation of the full
development of the individual in a nonrepressive society distinguishes his
work, along with sharp critique of existing
forms of domination and oppression, and
he emerges in this narrative as a theorist of
forces of domination and liberation.
Deeply rooted in philosophy and the conception of social theory developed by the
Institute for Social Research, Marcuse's
work lacked the sustained empirical analysis of some versions of Marxist theory
and the detailed conceptual analysis
found in many versions of political theory.
Yet he constantly showed how science,
technology, and theory itself had a political dimension and produced a solid body
of ideological and political analysis of
many of the dominant forms of society,
culture, and thought during the turbulent


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

era in which he lived and struggled for a

better world.
Thus, I believe that Marcuse overcomes
the limitations of many current varieties
of philosophy and social theory and that
his writings provide a viable startingpoint for theoretical and political concerns
of the present age. In particular, his articulations of philosophy with social theory,
cultural criticism, and radical politics
constitute an enduring legacy. While
mainstream academic divisions of labour
isolate social theory from philosophy
and other disciplines, Marcuse provides
a robust philosophical dimension and cultural criticism to social theory, while
developing his theoretical perspectives in
interaction with concrete analyses of
society, politics, and culture in the present
age. This dialectical approach thus assigns
philosophy an important role within
social theory, providing critical theory
with strong normative and philosophical
In addition, Marcuse emerges as a
sharp, even prescient, social analyst. He
was one of the rst on the left who both
developed a sharp critique of Soviet
Marxism and yet foresaw the liberalizing
trends in the Soviet Union (see Marcuse,
1958). After the uprisings in Poland
and Hungary in 1956 were ruthlessly
suppressed, many speculated that
Khrushchev would have to roll back
his programme of de-Stalinization and
crack down further. Marcuse, however,
The Eastern European events were likely to slow
down and perhaps even reverse de-Stalinization
in some elds; particularly in international strategy, a considerable 'hardening' has been apparent.
However, if our analysis is correct, the fundamental trend will continue and reassert itself throughout such reversals. With respect to internal Soviet
developments, this means at present continuation
of 'collective leadership', decline in the power of
the secret police, decentralization, legal reforms,
relaxation in censorship, liberalization in cultural
life. (Marcuse, 1958: 174)

In part as a response to the collapse of

communism and in part as a result of new
technological and economic conditions,

the capitalist system has been undergoing

Marcuse's loyalty to Marxism always led
him to analyse new conditions within capitalist societies that had emerged since
Marx. Social theory today can thus build
on this Marcusean tradition in developing
critical theories of contemporary society
grounded in analyses of the transformations of capitalism and emergence of a
new global economic world system.
For Marcuse, social theory was integrally
historical and must conceptualize the salient phenomena of the present age and
changes from previous social formations.
While the postmodern theories of
Baudrillard and Lyotard claim to postulate
a rupture in history, they fail to analyse the
key constituents of the changes going on,
with Baudrillard even declaring the `end of
political economy'. Marcuse, by contrast,
always attempted to analyse the changing
congurations of capitalism and to relate
social and cultural changes to transformations in the economy.
Moreover, Marcuse always paid special
attention to the important role of technology in organizing contemporary societies
and with the emergence of new technologies in our time the Marcusean emphasis
on the relationship between technology,
the economy, culture, and everyday life
is especially important. Marcuse also
paid attention to new forms of culture
and the ways that culture provided both
instruments of manipulation and liberation. The proliferation of new media technologies and cultural forms in recent
years also demands a Marcusean perspective to capture both their potentialities for
progressive social change and the possibilities of more streamlined forms of social
domination. While postmodern theories
also describe new technologies, Marcuse
always related the economy to culture
and technology, seeing both emancipatory
and dominating potentials, while theorists
like Baudrillard are one-dimensional,
often falling prey to technological determinism and views of society and culture
that fail to see positive and emancipatory

Herbert Marcuse

Finally, while versions of postmodern

theory, like Baudrillard's, have renounced
attempted to link his critical theory with
the most radical political movements of
the day, and thus to politicize his philosophy and social theory. Thus, I am suggesting that Marcuse's thought continues to
provide important resources and stimulus
for critical theory and radical politics in
the present age. Marcuse himself was
open to new theoretical and political currents, yet remained loyal to those theories
which he believed provided inspiration
and substance for the tasks of the present
age. Consequently, as we confront the
theoretical and political problems of the
day, I believe that the works of Herbert
Marcuse provide important resources for
our current situation and that a
Marcusean renaissance could help inspire
new theories and politics for the contemporary era, providing critical social theory
with new impulses and tasks.


Marcuse's unpublished papers are
collected in the Stadtsbibliothek in
Frankfurt Germany. Suhrkamp published
a 10-volume German-language edition
Schriften in the 1980s. Routledge has
begun publishing in 1997 six volumes of
unpublished material under the general
editorship of Douglas Kellner, and a
German edition of the unpublished
material is being published under the
editorship of Peter-Erwin Jansen for zu
Klampen Verlag. Marcuse's major works
in English include:
Marcuse, H. (1941) Reason and Revolution. New York:
Oxford University Press; reprinted Boston: Beacon
Press, 1960.
Marcuse, H. (1955) Eros and Civilization. Boston:
Beacon Press.
Marcuse, H. (1958) Soviet Marxism. New York:
Columbia University Press; 2nd edn. 1988).
Marcuse, H. (1964) One-Dimensional Man. Boston:
Beacon Press; 2nd edn. 1991.
Marcuse, H. (1965) `Repressive tolerance', in A
Critique of Pure Tolerance. Boston: Beacon Press.


Marcuse, H. (1968) Negations. Boston: Beacon Press.

Marcuse, H. (1969a) An Essay on Liberation. Boston:
Beacon Press.
Marcuse, H. (1969b) `The realm of freedom and the
realm of necessity: A reconsideration', Praxis, 5(1):
Marcuse, H. (1970) Five Lectures. Boston: Beacon
Marcuse, H. (1972) Counterrevolution and Revolt.
Boston: Beacon Press.
Marcuse, H. (1973) Studies in Critical Philosophy.
Boston: Beacon Press.
Marcuse, H. (1974) `Marxism and feminism',
Women's Studies, 2(3): 27988.
Marcuse, H. (1978) The Aesthetic Dimension. Boston:
Beacon Press.
Marcuse, H. (1979) `The reication of the proletariat',
Canadian Journal of Philosophy and Social Theory, 3(1):
Marcuse, H. (1980) `Protosocialism and late capitalism: Toward a theoretical synthesis based on
Bahre's analysis', in O Wolter (ed.) Rudolf
Bahro: Critical Responses. White Plains, NY: M.E.
Marcuse, H. (1998) Technology, War and Fascism. (ed.
Douglas Kellner.) London and New York:

Alford, C. Fred (1985) Science and the Revenge of
Nature: Marcuse and Habermas. Gainesville:
University of Florida Press.
Bokina, John and Lukes, Timothy J. (eds) (1994)
Marcuse: New Perspectives. Lawrence: University
of Kansas Press.
Benjamin, W. (1969) Illuminations. New York:
Schocken Press.
Fromm, Erich (1955) `The political implications of
instinctual radicalism', Dissent, II(4): 3429.
Habermas, Jurgen (1984, 1987) Theory of
Communicative Action, Vols. 1 and 2. Boston:
Beacon Press.
Heidegger, Martin (1977) The Question Concerning
Technology. New York: Harper and Row.
Institut fur Sozialforschung (1992): Kritik und
Utopie im Werk von Herbert Marcuse. Frankfurt:
Kellner, Douglas (1984) Herbert Marcuse and the Crisis
of Marxism. London and Berkeley: Macmillan and
University of California Press.
Kellner, Douglas (1989) Critical Theory, Marxism, and
Modernity. Cambridge and Baltimore, MD: Polity
and John Hopkins University Press.
Lukacs, Georg (1971) History and Class Consciousness.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Marx, Karl (1973) Grundrisse. London: Penguin


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Oliver, Kelly (1998) Subjectivity without Subjects. New

York: Rowman and Littleeld.
Pippin, Robert, Feenberg, A. and Webel, C. (1988)
Marcuse. Critical Theory and the Promise of Utopia.
South Hadley, MA: Bergin and Garvey.

Schoolman, Morton (1980) The Imaginary Witness.

New York: Free Press.
Wiggershaus, Rolf (1994) The Frankfurt School.
Cambridge: Polity Press.

Theodor Adorno



heodor Wiesengrund Adorno was

born in Frankfurt am Main in 1903.
After showing early talent as a
musician he began lessons in composition
at the age of 16, and by the age of 18 was
studying philosophy, music, and psychology at university, and publishing music
criticism. Having completed a largely
derivative PhD on the phenomenology
of Edmund Husserl in 1924 under the
supervision of Hans Cornelius, he
moved to Vienna in 1925 to study composition with Alban Berg. After returning to
Frankfurt he withdrew, on the advice of
Cornelius, a Habilitation dissertation on
`The Concept of the Unconscious in the
Transcendental Doctrine of the Soul', the
last part of which manifests a new Marxinuenced concern, of the kind that he
would retain throughout his career, with
the relationship between the emergence
and adoption of philosophical theories
and socioeconomic developments. At
the end of the 1920s, while editing the
musical journal `Anbruch' (`Dawn'),
Adorno encountered Georg Lukacs's
History and Class-Consciousness and developed a more intensive contact with Walter

Benjamin, whom he had got to know in

1923. In 1931 he completed his
Habilitation on `Kierkegaard: Construction of the Aesthetic', which bears many
of the traits of his mature work and is
inuenced, like his other work at this
time, by Benjamin.
Adorno initially regarded the seizure of
power by the Nazis as a merely passing
phenomenon, and continued to visit
Germany until 1937, while working as an
`advanced student' at Merton College,
Oxford. In 1938 he moved to the United
States to work with Max Horkheimer as a
member of the Institute for Social
Research, living in New York until he
moved to Los Angeles for the years 1941
9. During this time he wrote Dialectic of
Enlightenment with Horkheimer, completed Minima Moralia, a collection of
short pieces which bears the subtitle
`Reections from Damaged Life', and
Philosophy of New Music, which deals
mainly with the work of Schonberg and
Stravinsky and which inuenced Thomas
Mann's novel Doktor Faustus, and he was a
member of the group that wrote The
Authoritarian Personality as part of the
Berkeley `Project on the Nature and
Extent of Anti-Semitism'. Adorno
returned to Frankfurt in 1949, where he


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

nally gained his rst (and only) tenured

professorship, at the re-established
Institute for Social Research, in 1956. In
the early 1960s he was involved, along
with, among others, his academic assistant Jurgen Habermas, in the `Positivism
Dispute in German Sociology', in which
his main opponents were Karl Popper
and Hans Albert. Throughout the 1960s
he was engaged in writing major works,
such as Negative Dialectics, Aesthetic Theory,
and a host of other projects, some of which
remained incomplete. He died on holiday
in Switzerland in 1969, at the time of disturbances associated with the student
Even such a brief biographical summary suggests the remarkable diversity
of Adorno's work, which has to be considered in the contexts of aesthetics, cultural
studies, musicology, philosophy, psychology, sociology, and social theory. His work
is perhaps best understood as a series of
critical approaches to the major questions
of a post-theological modernity. However,
nding a common denominator in these
approaches and locating Adorno in relation to the issues of contemporary social
theory is made difcult by the fact that his
work derives from traditions of thought
which remain too little known in the
English-speaking world. His early philosophical work is, for example, concerned
with questions deriving from Kant's
philosophy, which are seen through the
lter of the neo-Kantianism and phenomenology that dominate German philosophy in the rst quarter of the twentieth
century. The main question in that philosophy is how to establish a basis for claims
to truth about the natural and social world
in the wake of Kant's claim that one can no
longer assume that the world has an
inherent `ready-made' structure which
exists independently of the ways in
which it is apprehended. In common
with other inuential thinkers in the
1920s, like Martin Heidegger, Adorno
came to believe that a philosophy concerned with establishing timeless principles even principles of the kind
proposed by Kant in his account of the

`transcendental' conditions of possibility

of knowledge is no longer viable in the
modern world. This means that philosophy and sociology move into a new relationship, in which `the absolute division
between the question of the social origin,
the social history of [philosophical]
thought, and its truth content' (Adorno,
1998b: 73) can no longer be sustained. At
the same time Adorno rejected a relativistic sociology of knowledge of the kind
developed by Karl Mannheim. By the
beginning of the 1930s he was, then,
already convinced that a farewell to the
idea of philosophical principles which
transcend those in any other discipline
should result in the eventual abolition of
philosophy as a foundational discipline,
and in a relocation of philosophy in relation to social theory.
This leaves open the precise nature of
the role of both philosophy and social theory, and Adorno tried throughout his
career to negotiate a course between the
adoption of a Hegel- and Marx-inuenced
contextualization and historicization of
philosophy, and attention to ideas about
language and philosophy informed by
Jewish mysticism which were developed
in the pre-Marxist work of his friend
Walter Benjamin. In doing so he addresses
issues concerning the potentially repressive nature of totalizing forms of thinking
that have come to play a role in the
debates around the nature of `postmetaphysical thinking' (Habermas) in the
work of, for example, Foucault, Derrida,
and Lyotard, and in various forms of
recent cultural theory. The advantage of
Adorno's work over some of these
approaches lies both in its concern to
anchor theoretical reections in a critical
awareness of the specicity of modern
social life, and in its refusal to abandon
the notion of rationality, even as it analyses the destructive effects of certain
aspects of `Enlightenment' thinking on
modern societies. This brings Adorno
close at times even though he himself
did not see it in these terms, because he
mistakenly equated pragmatism with
positivism to the tradition of American

Theodor Adorno

pragmatism derived from John Dewey,

which is represented today by Hilary
Putnam, Richard Rorty and others.
Adorno's concern that truth should be
seen in terms of `giving a voice to suffering' (Adorno, 1975: 29), rather than of adequacy of thought to a `ready-made' reality,
is echoed, for instance, in Rorty's conviction that philosophy should now be interested in helping to avoid the iniction of
pain and in augmenting the sources of
post-theological hope, rather than in
grounding epistemology.
Despite its still disputed status in relation
to mainstream social theory, Adorno's
work can be approached as part of the
debate concerning the relationship
between scientic explanation and the
understanding of human action and culture which develops towards the end of
the nineteenth century via the work of
Wilhelm Dilthey, Max Weber, and others.
Adorno attempts to elaborate ways of
thinking which come to terms with the
massive advances in the explanatory
power of the natural sciences and yet
also take account of the fact that these
advances take place within sociohistorical
contexts which often render them a threat
both to human well-being and to nonhuman nature. He questions the idea
that the methods of the natural sciences
are appropriate to social inquiry, highlighting the resistance of social existence to
analysis in terms of denitive methodological principles. The main conceptual
resources for his ideas are, like those of
many critical social theorists, drawn from
the work of Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche,
Weber, and Freud, but Adorno often
understands these resources in the light
of the work of Benjamin, which relies
both on Jewish theology and on early
German Romantic thought from the end
of the eighteenth century, particularly
that of Novalis and Friedrich Schlegel
(see Bowie, 1997).


The essential conviction of the early

Romantics is, much as it is for Adorno,
that the project of grounding a complete
philosophical system which could encompass thought's relation to reality is
doomed to failure. Novalis and Schlegel
are led by this conviction to a concern
with fragmentariness and incompleteness, and to the idea, which becomes
central to Adorno's thought, that art
may in some respects tell us more about
the nature of modern existence than philosophy. For the Romantics this is because
art's resistance to denitive interpretation
reminds us of the inherently temporal nature of our capacity to grasp the world, and
they are led by such ideas, as Adorno will
be, to a new evaluation of the signicance
of music. Works of art are also signicant
for Adorno because they are irreducibly
particular and cannot be reduced to general explanatory concepts, though they
may, for that very reason, give access to
insights into society not available to
approaches based on general concepts.
Adorno developed the implications of
such ideas throughout his career.
Adorno does not offer a social theory in
the sense that his pupil Habermas does in
the Theorie des kommunikativen Handelns
(Theory of Communicative Action) (1981),
which attempts to map out a methodological framework for understanding the
workings of modern societies. Adorno's
relation to social theory is more indirect
and must be established in relation to
works as diverse as, for instance, his
book on Richard Wagner, the study of
the `authoritarian personality', his texts
on the sociology of music, the critiques
of positivism in sociology, or his more
immediately philosophical works, like
Against Epistemology, Dialectic of Enlightenment, Negative Dialectics, and Aesthetic
Theory. Adorno's earlier work on music,
for example, such as the essay `On the
Social Situation of Music' of 1932, is a
rather clumsy attempt to use aspects of
Marx's theory of the commodity to show
how the commodity world has deprived
all but the most radical and difcult music
that of Schonberg and his followers,


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

whose abandonment of the conventions of

tonality makes it resistant to immediate
aesthetic enjoyment of its ability to
bring about a critical stance towards existing social reality. On the other hand,
although his philosophical work of the
same period retains a Marx-oriented concern with the historical location of philosophical problems, Adorno also relies in
some respects upon Benjamin's theologically inspired idea that language in
the modern world has lost its essential
connection to things and has become a
merely arbitrary subjective imposition on
reality. Despite the differences between
these approaches, they both involve a conceptual structure which takes one to the
heart of Adorno's social thought.
In his work from the 1920s until the end
of his life Adorno often refers to `idealism'
as the target of his theories. By idealism he
means both the broadly conceived
`Platonic' tradition which gives primacy
to the universal `idea' or `form' of things
before their particular existence, and the
tradition of German idealism which
emerges as a response to Kant and culminates in Hegel's system. His objection to
`idealism' stems in particular from his
belief that systematic philosophical thinking obscures the irreducible particularity
of both people and things. The crucial link
which Adorno makes in this respect is
between the principle of much modern
systematic thinking and Marx's analysis
of the commodity form's subordination
of use-value to exchange-value. In the
German philosophical tradition the conceptual basis of this link develops as a consequence of the rediscovery of Spinoza in
the 1780s by F.H. Jacobi, which inuenced
nearly every major German thinker from
the Romantics to Hegel, Nietzsche, and
beyond (see Bowie, 1997). Spinoza's systematic principle of `all determination is
negation' entails that every individual element of a system can only gain an identity
via the relations it has to the other things
which it is not the same principle will
later be employed by Saussure in his
assertion that there are no positive terms
in language (and is also the principle of

digital technology). Jacobi argued that

Spinoza's principle led to what he came
to term `nihilism', because nothing was
of value or signicance in itself, its significance depending rather on chains of relations to other things with no necessary
end. Analogously, in Marx's theory of
the commodity the value of an object in
capitalism is not its intrinsic use-value,
but rather its exchange-value, which is
determined by its relation to other
Adorno regards Marx's claims about
the nature of capitalism as the key to
understanding the historical signicance
of Hegel's idealist system, which is for
him perhaps the central expression of the
essential nature of modernity. It is,
though, at the same time important to
remember that Adorno's criticisms of
Hegel are directed against the systematic
completeness at which Hegel aims, not at
those parts of Hegel's dialectical method
that seek to avoid xed concepts, which
Adorno appropriates for his own thinking. Hegel's system is based on the idea
that the truth of things emerges precisely
via insight into their inherent `negativity',
which results from their dependence on
other things. This leads Hegel to the
claim that everything can only be adequately determined in terms of its place
within the whole hence his dictum that
`The true is the whole'. The awareness of
the negativity of everything particular
does not, for Hegel, lead to nihilism, but
instead ultimately leads to `absolute
knowledge', in which the negative is subsumed at the end of the system into the
positive totality articulated by philosophy.
In the light both of Weber's account of
rationalization in modernity, which functions in terms of the destruction of the
particularity of tradition-based values,
and of Lukacs' account in History and
Class-Consciousness of how capitalism
creates a totality which obscures the
qualitative features of the world via the
`reifying' principle of exchange-value,
Adorno connects the systematic aspect of
Hegel with real totalizing processes which
occur in the spread of the commodity

Theodor Adorno

form across the globe. Rather than assuming that the true is the whole, Adorno
argues that these processes obscure the
underlying truth about modern societies,
rendering judgments about the whole
inappropriate, whence his inversion of
Hegel in Negative Dialectics in 1966: `The
whole is the untrue'. However, this leaves
Adorno with a paradoxical position, in
which he both renounces totalizing claims
and yet relies as the basis of his renunciation upon a totalizing characterization of
the `universal context of delusion' that
results from the dominance of the commodity principle. This problematic dialectic between totalization and the critique of
totalization recurs throughout his mature
Adorno is already concerned from the
end of the 1920s onwards, and will remain
so throughout his life, with how it is possible to articulate truth in modernity if
thought must renounce claims to grasp
the totality of the processes which determine social phenomena. This concern is
the source of his interest in Benjamin's
theory of language. Benjamin claims
modernity is characterized by an arbitrariness of signication which he illustrates
by the role of allegory in early modern
German baroque drama, where `Every
person, every thing, every relationship
can arbitrarily mean something else'
(Benjamin, 1980: 350). In his later, Marxinuenced work on Baudelaire, Benjamin
suggests how the conception of allegory
can apply to ideas like those of Adorno,
thereby revealing the reasons for
Adorno's link between Benjamin's conception of language and the critique of
commodity form: `The specic devaluation of the world of things which is present in the commodity is the foundation of
the allegorical intention in Baudelaire'
(Benjamin, 1980: 1151). Benjamin's
response to the idea of the devaluation
of the particular is to propose the idea of
a language of `names', which would have
an essential, rather than an arbitrary relation to what they designate. Although
Adorno, much like Benjamin, thinks `the
contingency of the signicative attribution


of language and things becomes radically

problematic' (Adorno, 1973c: 366) in the
modern era, he does not adopt all of
Benjamin's position, which he later critically characterizes as `metaphysical' in
Negative Dialectics.
Signicant parts of Adorno's work are,
though, devoted to the idea of a conception of language which would be adequate to the situation where there no
longer seems to be a way of denitively
grounding the truth. Many of Adorno's
key ideas about literature and about the
importance of music for understanding
modernity derive from his interpretation
of this situation. He claims in 1957, for
example, that `As language, music
moves towards the pure name, the absolute unity of thing and sign, which is lost
in its immediacy to all human knowledge'
(Adorno, 1984: 154). Ideas like this about
language are also the source of his notion
of the `constellation', in which a unique
conguration of words is intended to
articulate a particular issue without claiming to found a methodology with a universal application, something he also
sees in terms of creating `thought-models'
which are adequate to the specicity of
their object. The notions of the constellation and of the thought-model can be used
to explain if not always to justify the
often dense, exploratory nature of
Adorno's own writing, which prevents it
being easily reduced to a series of essential
Adorno initially employed notions of
the kind just outlined in a framework
which associates the critical intent of his
thinking with the idea of proletarian revolution as the means of breaking the
socially destructive dominance of the
exchange principle. However, in light of
events in the Soviet Union and Germany
in the mid-1930s, he ceases to believe in
the possibility of radical social transformation by revolutionary means. This
does not mean that he becomes uncritical
of the repressive manifestations of modern
capitalism, or that his essential conception
changes the ideas outlined above remain
remarkably constant in most of his work


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

but he focuses more on what makes

rationality in modern societies often
incapable of eliminating suffering and
injustice, even when the means for doing
so are already in existence.
The most extreme manifestation of
Adorno's questioning of modern rationality is Dialectic of Enlightenment (hereafter
DoE), which, although written in the
1940s, only began to have a signicant
inuence on social theory some 20 years
later, in relation to the breakdown of the
illusory revolutionary hopes of the student movement and to the emergence of
ecological concerns. The bleak tone of the
book is hardly surprising, given the time
of its genesis, but the degree of negativity
it evinces with regard to modern forms
of rationality is greater than in Adorno's
previous and much of his subsequent
work. DoE relies on a Nietzschean conception of knowledge as power over the
`other', be it nature or other people, and
this has been the source of its appeal to
other Nietzsche-inuenced directions in
modern thought, such as post-structuralism. Horkheimer and Adorno present
`Enlightenment' as the `mythical fear' of
nature which `has become radical'.
Reason in modernity is therefore characterized almost exclusively as mathematically based `instrumental' reason which
takes the systematic form described above
in relation to Spinoza, Hegel and Marx
whose aim is to subdue the threat posed to
self-preservation by external nature. The
authors regard even premodern myth as
a form of reason, because it is an attempt
to subordinate nature to forms which will
control and manipulate it, by reducing the
inherent difference of things to restrictive
forms of identity. The basis of their argument is a conception of subjectivity
derived from Nietzsche and Freud,
which they connect directly to their
conception of instrumental reason. What
happens in capitalism is `already perceptible in the primal history of subjectivity'
(Horkheimer and Adorno, 1971: 51, my
translation). In this history the stable
identity of the self is established via the
internal repression of drives, in the name

of the self-discipline required for selfpreservation. However, this obviates the

point of existing as an individual subject,
because of the violence done by the subject to its own nature. The process of
`primal history' is seen as the source
even of the inhumanity of the system of
the fullment of needs in `late capitalism',
which distorts the subject's needs into
destructive forms which are appropriate
for the functioning of the system but
not for those within it. The only way
beyond such a situation involves an
appeal to the idea of a `reconciliation' of
the subject with the nature of which it is
a part: how this could take place is,
though, left open. Adorno suggests elsewhere that a `mimetic' relation to
nature, which exemplies such a reconciliation, is somehow present in the way
signicant works of modern art have a
`nonconceptual afnity' to what they
Perhaps the most inuential part of DoE
is its critique of the `culture industry', in
which the commodity form, like the
other forms of `Enlightenment', is seen
as making culture, which was formerly
in some measure the expression of
human freedom and individuality, into a
mere schematic repetition of pregiven
forms. This repetition is epitomized by
Hollywood lm and jazz, which supposedly accord with what market research
shows people want who have been
subjected to the consciousness-forming
effects of the commodity world the argument now seems more relevant to much
that goes on in the rock music industry
than to its original target, especially in
the case of jazz. Although Horkheimer
and Adorno's aim in DoE is to provide
resources for establishing models of
reason which avoid the results of the `dialectic of enlightenment', it is not clear
whether the theoretical model they
employ can lead to anything but the consequence that reason is inherently based
on repression, rather than also being
potentially enabling and emancipatory.
Adorno's approaches in the rest of his
work to the dilemmas evident in DoE are

Theodor Adorno

decisive in assessing his contribution to

social theory.
DoE itself is highly speculative, and its
incorporation of the whole history of the
West into the story just described is at
odds with Adorno's desire elsewhere to
avoid the Procrustean effects of abstraction. One of the central thoroughly
rational claims of Negative Dialectics is
that the `utopia of cognition would be to
open up the conceptless with concepts,
without reducing it to them' (Adorno,
1975: 21, my translation). The concepts
employed in DoE are, though, all too
crudely imposed on their subject matter.
DoE also points to another potential
weakness in Adorno: it bases its account
of the history of subjectivity on an interpretation of myth via Nietzsche, Freud,
and others, but uses very little empirical
research to conrm that myth can indeed
be interpreted in this manner. During his
work for the Princeton Radio Research
Project with Paul Lazarsfeld in 1938, his
work on The Authoritarian Personality,
and, after his return to Frankfurt, on a
study of attitudes in the German population to the Nazi period and to the
occupying forces, Adorno tried in some
cases, such as the anti-Semitism project,
quite successfully to develop means for
adequately carrying out empirical social
research, using resources from social psychology and psychoanalysis. Even in
1938, though, this aim was marked by
considerable tensions in relation to his
philosophical claims, and in his later
work he sometimes regards empirical
social research as inherently questionable.
The problem faced by Adorno with
regard to empirical research is evident in
the analysis of the culture industry. If the
consciousness of people is indeed constituted by commodity-determined forms of
culture, the task of the theorist is to reveal
the damaging implications of such culture. Adorno claims that this is best


accomplished by analysing the production and nature of commodied culture,

such as the factors determining commercialized radio's transmission of music,
and the structure and the content of the
music transmitted. In the essay `On the
Fetish-Character of Music' of 1938, he
therefore argued that asking listeners
about their reactions would merely reproduce information about the surface manifestation of this production, and thus fail
to grasp its essence: `in a completely
blinded reality the truth that reveals is
moved easily enough into compromising
proximity to the system of delusion'
(Adorno, 1938: 339, my translation). Just
how debatable this rejection of empirical
research is becomes apparent in Adorno's
later reections in 1968 on his own
admitted failure in the Radio Project: `It
is an open question, which can indeed
only be answered empirically, whether,
to what extent, in what dimensions the
social implications revealed in musical
content analysis are also grasped by the
listeners' (cited in Dahms, 1994: 2523).
The paradigmatic divergence of these
approaches results from tensions in
Adorno's conception of the role of method
in social inquiry and in his related reections on the question of subjectivity.
Adorno's suspicion of empirical
research, for example into the reactions
of listeners to the `stimuli' of radio
music, can be justied insofar as the
research fails to carry out any investigation into what is being listened to. Such
investigation requires detailed analysis
of the relationship between musical and
social forms of the kind that can be
found in Adorno's best work on music
and society, like the book on Mahler or
his uncompleted work on Beethoven.
This sort of research is necessarily resistant to an empiricist approach, because
its object cannot be specied as, for
example, the musical score: it is only
when the score is located in a specic constellation of contexts and practices that it
can give rise to insights into society. The
hermeneutic holism involved in research
like this has proved to be a vital aspect of


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

postempiricist methodology in the social

(and in some cases the natural) sciences.
However, Adorno also adheres to the
much more problematic holism we have
already encountered, which regards
modernity as dominated and constituted
by the forms of identity produced by the
exchange principle.
During the dispute with Popper and
Albert concerning the methodology of
the social sciences in the early 1960s,
Adorno claims that `The abstractness of
exchange-value is connected a priori
with the domination of the general over
the particular, of society over its compulsory members' (Adorno, 1972: 21), and
this domination seems sometimes to
include any sort of identication in such
a society, from the simple predicative
sentence which subsumes a particular
phenomenon under a general term, to
empirical claims about social phenomena.
There is, though, a vital ambiguity in
Adorno's conception of identity. The idea
that there is a source of repressive identication common to the sphere of commodity exchange and to conceptual
thinking relies on two different senses of
identity, which Adorno sometimes (but
not always) conates. The identication
of any commodity with all other commodities, as an exchange-value independent of
its use-value, does involve the danger of
devaluing the particular thing (whilst also
facilitating the unjustly distributed
availability of otherwise inaccessible
goods). However, things in the social
world, including those bought as commodities, can also be identied as a
whole (potentially unlimited) number of
things, which may be completely particular and which can only be assessed in
particular terms in particular contexts. If
the two senses of identity are indeed
different, then the inherent link of the
commodity structure to all forms of identity and their possibly damaging consequences cannot be upheld, and the
totalizing aspect of Adorno's conception
is no longer defensible in this respect
(on this see Schnadelbach, 1987; Thyen,
1989). This does not mean, though, that

the second sense of identity, which can

include the aim of doing justice to things
that is one of Adorno's main goals, cannot
be used for critical purposes, for instance
when the particular way something is
identied precludes the realization of its
most signicant possibilities.
Adorno's suggestion, both in the dispute
with Popper and Albert and elsewhere,
that `positivism' involves a necessary link
between identifying social facts and legitimating the existence of those facts is evidently implausible. Furthermore, much of
the so-called `positivism dispute' was
itself actually based on a series of misunderstandings and misinterpretations
by both sides. One of Adorno's essential
targets is, for example, scientism, but
Popper is equally concerned to attack
what he sees as the scientism of some of
the members of the Vienna Circle, which
only allows knowledge claims on the basis
of observation sentences and inductive
generalizations (see Dahms, 1994; Bowie,
2000). Adorno's linking of identication
and legitimation could only be sustained
if the very gathering of facts about society
were, as he seems to suggest, itself subjected to the logic of identity inherent in
the commodity structure which produces
the consciousness of the people in that
society, and therefore precluded the adoption of a critical perspective. However,
this situation would render the position
of the critical theorist who makes such
claims about the effects of commodication itself problematic, because of their
lack of a location from which to judge
those effects without also being subjected
to them.
Valid as they may be, criticisms of this
kind can unfairly obscure the fact that
Adorno's primary aim in his postwar
work is not methodological, but practical.
He wishes to make what he sees as the
new `categorical imperative' forced upon
us by Hitler into the focus of reection on
human thought and action. This is the
imperative that Auschwitz could never
be repeated, an aim recently echoed in
Zygmunt Bauman's demand to make
the lessons of the Holocaust the centre of

Theodor Adorno

theories of modernity. Looked at in this

perspective the manner of the industrialized mass murder of the victims of the
Holocaust does seem, despite the problem
of how this is to be established, to be connected in some respects to the processes
Adorno associates with `identity thinking'. Adorno claims that `Auschwitz conrms the philosopheme of pure identity as
death' (Adorno, 1975: 355) because of its
absolute lack of concern for the individuality of its victims. The fact that the
crimes of the Holocaust were perpetrated
in a developed industrial society with a
cultural tradition regarded by many
including Adorno himself as second to
none is a further reason to take Adorno's
theory very seriously. Even if one rejects
Adorno's assertion that `Auschwitz has
irrefutably proved the failure of culture'
(Adorno, 1975: 359), the challenge it
poses to social theory and to the rest of
the humanities cannot be ignored. The
decisive question is whether Adorno's
model linking the structures of reason to
the dominance of the exchange principle
and the concomitant domination of
people is adequate for interpreting modernity as a whole. Is Auschwitz the key to
the essential nature of modern societies
that is merely disguised by the forms of
modern culture?
The most sustained attempt to move
beyond this view has been the work of
Adorno's pupil Habermas, who claims
that Adorno reduces reason, which can
be both instrumental and communicative,
solely to the former. This reduction, which
echoes the later Heidegger's interpretation of modern thought and its application
in modern technology as the `subjectication of being', relies, Habermas maintains,
upon a questionable founding conception
of subjectivity as self-preservation, which
leads to the equation of reason with dominance over the `other'. In contrast,
Habermas seeks to replace the centrality
of the notion of `purposive rationality',
which underlies Adorno's conception of
`instrumental reason', with `communicative action'. This change of orientation
precludes complete domination of the


other because the `telos of agreement' in

validity-oriented communication can
always keep open the possibility that the
other may be in possession of the truth.
It is therefore possible to see that
advances in rationality need not be reducible to advances in technical control
of nature, as ethical and legal developments in democratic societies can
suggest. Habermas associates his view
with the need for a wholesale replacement
of the `paradigm of subject philosophy'
by the paradigm of intersubjectivity
based on the `linguistic turn', in which
`world-constituting capacities are transferred from transcendental subjectivity
to grammatical structures' (Habermas,
1988: 15).
This alternative has itself been criticized
for its failure to acknowledge those conceptions of subjectivity in the Western
tradition which do not see it as being
reducible either to self-preservation or to
its language (see e.g. Henrich, 1987; Frank,
1991; Dews, 1995; Bowie, 1999b).
Adorno's own claim in this regard, in
Minima Moralia, that the individual subject is perhaps the only remaining locus
of emancipatory possibilities in advanced
capitalist societies, therefore suggests a
crucial ambiguity in his work. On the
one hand, Adorno insists, with a radicality
he himself sometimes characterizes as
exaggeration, on the overwhelming pressure of the consciousness-forming objective conditions that led to Fascism, which
he believes (with some justication) still
characterize advanced capitalist societies;
on the other, he can also suggest in the
same context that `Critical incorporation
(Aufarbeitung) of the past as enlightenment
is essentially. . . a turn to the subject, a reinforcement of its self-awareness/self-condence (Selbstbewusstsein) and thus also of
its self' (Adorno, 1970: 27). Adorno's
work on the dynamic between the overwhelming pressures exerted by modern
societies on their members and the cultural and philosophical responses to
those pressures suffers, then, from an
unnecessarily metaphysical conception
of the effects of the commodity principle.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

A conception of modern subjectivity

that retains even a diminished role for
the subject's autonomous individuality
can, while still taking account of the
undoubted effects of the pressures for
conformity in modern societies, make
Adorno's work a more useful resource
for social theory. Such a conception allows
one to draw on the insights offered by the
best of his specic explorations of modern
culture and his criticisms of the Western
philosophical tradition without falling
prey to his exaggerations.


Works in German
ber den Fetischcharakter in
Adorno, T.W. (1938) `U
Musik', Zeitschrift fur Sozialforschung, 7: 32156.
Adorno, T.W. (1970) Erziehung zur Mundigkeit.
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, T.W. (1973c) Philosophische Fruhschriften, in
Gesammelte Schriften. Vol. 1. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, T.W. (1975) Negative Dialektik. Frankfurt:
Adorno, T.W. (1984) Musikalische Schriften V, in
Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 18. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, T.W. (1998b) Metaphysik. Begriff und
Probleme. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Adorno, T.W., Dahrendorf, R., Albert, H., Habermas,
J. and Popper, K.R. (1972) Der Positivismusstreit in
der deutschen Soziologie. Darmstadt and Neuwied:
Horkheimer, M., and Adorno, T.W. (1971) Dialektik
der Aufklarung. Frankfurt: Fischer.

Works in English
Adorno, T.W. (1972) Aspects of Sociology. Boston:
Adorno, T.W. (1973a) Negative Dialectics. London:
Adorno, T.W. (1973b) The Philosophy of Modern Music.
New York: Seabury.
Adorno, T.W. (1974) Minima Moralia. London: New
Left Books.
Adorno, T.W. (1976a) Introduction to the Sociology of
Music. New York: Seabury.
Adorno, T.W. (1976b) The Positivist Dispute in German
Sociology. London: Heinemann.
Adorno, T.W. (1981a) Prisms. Cambridge, MA: MIT
Adorno, T.W. (1981b) In Search of Wagner. London:
Adorno, T.W. (1982) Against Epistemology. Oxford:
Adorno, T.W. (1989) Kierkegaard: Construction of the
Aesthetic. Minneapolis: Minnesota University
Adorno, T.W. (1991) The Culture Industry. London:
Adorno, T.W. (19912) Notes to Literature. (2 Vols.).
New York: Columbia University Press.
Adorno, T.W. (1992) Mahler: A Musical Physiognomy.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Adorno, T.W. (1993) Hegel: Three Studies. Cambridge,
MA: MIT Press.
Adorno, T.W. (1998a) Beethoven. Cambridge: Polity
Adorno, T.W. (1997) Aesthetic Theory. London:
Adorno, T.W., Frenkel-Brunswick, E., Levinson, D.J.
and Sanford, R.N. (1950) The Authoritarian
Personality. New York: Harper.
Adorno, T.W. and Horkheimer, M. (1972) Dialectic of
Enlightenment. New York: Seabury.

Arato, A. and Gebhardt, E. (1978) The Essential
Frankfurt School Reader. New York: Urizen.
Benhabib, Seyla (1986) Critique, Norm and Utopia: A
Study of the Foundations of Critical Theory. New York:
Columbia University Press.
Benjamin, A. (ed.) (1989) The Problems of Modernity.
Adorno and Benjamin. London: Routledge.
Benjamin, W. (1980) Gesammelte Schriften. Frankfurt:
Bernstein, J. (1991) The Fate of Art. Cambridge: Polity
Bowie, A. (1997) From Romanticism to Critical Theory.
The Philosophy of German Literary Theory. London:
Bowie, A. (1999a) `Adorno, Heidegger and the meaning of music', Thesis, 11: 56.
Bowie, A. (1999b) `German philosophy today:
between idealism, romanticism and pragmatism',
in ed. A. O'Hear (ed.), German Philosophy Since
Kant. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bowie, A. (2000) `The romantic connection: Neurath,
the Frankfurt School, and Heidegger', Part 1,
British Journal for the History of Philosophy, 8(2):
Bowie, A. (in press) `The romantic connection:
Neurath, the Frankfurt School, and Heidegger,
Part 2, British Journal for the History of Philosophy,
Buck-Morss, S. (1977) The Origin of Negative Dialectics.
Hassocks: Harvester.
Connerton, P. (1980) The Tragedy of Enlightenment: An
Essay on the Frankfurt School. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Dahms, H.-J. (1994) Positivismusstreit: die Auseinandersetzung der Frankfurter Schule mit dem logischen

Theodor Adorno
Positivismus, dem amerikanischen Pragmatismus, und
dem kritischen Rationalismus. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Dews, P. (1995) The Limits of Disenchantment. London:
Frank, Manfred (1991) Selbstbewutsein und
Selbsterkenntnis. Stuttgart: Reclam.
Geuss, R. (1981) The Idea of a Critical Theory.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Habermas, J. (1981) Theorie des kommunikativen
Handelns. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Habermas, J. (1987) The Philosophical Discourse of
Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1988) Nachmetaphysisches Denken.
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Held, D. (1980) Introduction to Critical Theory. From
Horkheimer to Habermas. London: Hutchinson.
Henrich, D. (1987) Konzepte. Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Jameson, F. (1970) Marxism and Form. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.


Jameson, F. (1990) Late Marxism. Adorno, or the

Persistence of the Dialectic. London: Verso.
Jarvis, S. (1998) Adorno. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Jay, M. (1984) Adorno. London: Fontana.
Paddison, M. (1993) Adorno's Aesthetics of Music.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Rose, G. (1978) The Melancholy Science. London:
Schnadelbach, Herbert (1987) Vernunft und Geschichte.
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Thyen, Anke (1989) Negative Dialektik und Erfahrung.
Zur Rationalitat des Nichtidentischen bei Adorno.
Frankfurt: Suhrkamp.
Wellmer, A. (1991) The Persistence of Modernity.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Wiggershaus, R. (1993) The Frankfurt School.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Zuidervaart, L. (1991) Adorno's Aesthetic Theory.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Walter Benjamin



fter a substantial period of

neglect, Walter Benjamin (1892
1940) is now widely recognized
as one of the most original and insightful
thinkers of his generation and as perhaps
the most important German literary theorist of the twentieth century. Like several
of the other gures proled in this book,
Benjamin would not have thought of himself as a social theorist as such. Nevertheless, his idiosyncratic and frequently
enigmatic writings on literature, aesthetics, philosophy, and historiography
are increasingly seen to have a special
resonance with, and relevance for, contemporary social and cultural analysis. A
close friend of the Judaic scholar Gershom
Scholem, the Marxist playwright Bertolt
Brecht, and the philosopher Theodor
Adorno, Benjamin became an associate
of the Frankfurt Institute for Social
Research and his ideas exist in an intricate
interplay with the critical theory of the socalled `Frankfurt School'. Although
Benjamin's texts often differ radically in
terms of their evaluation of phenomena,
they also frequently pregure key concerns and concepts for critical theory and

are, above all, marked by the same

catastrophic historical experiences of
war, economic ruin, revolution, and
In stark contrast to such traumas,
Benjamin's childhood was a time of material comfort and tedious tranquility. Born
on 15 July 1892, the son of an auctioneer
and eldest of three children, Walter
Benedix Schonies Benjamin grew up in
the desirable west end districts of Berlin
in an afuent, assimilated German-Jewish
family. As has often been observed, his
1932 semiautobiographical reections on
his formative years, `A Berlin Childhood
Around 1900' (in Benjamin, 1991, Vol. VI)
and `Berlin Chronicle' (in Benjamin,
1985b), are more disquisitions on the promises, possibilities, and prohibitions
attending a middle-class, urban childhood
in general than an intimate portrait of the
intellectual as a young man. His reminiscences speak of a solitary and sickly childhood cloistered in the desperately `cosy',
cluttered, bourgeois interior of the time, of
the dull round of visits to ageing relations,
and of the strictures of school life. They
tell of a child whose primary consolations
for this dry, disciplined existence were in
the daydreams stimulated by reading, by
visits to the enchanting Tiergarten and

Walter Benjamin

Berlin zoo, and, on one memorable occasion, by a wholly unexpected and unsanctioned foray into an alluring and
thoroughly disreputable quarter of the
On health grounds Benjamin spent two
years of his schooling (19056) at a relatively progressive boarding school at
Haubinda in Thuringia, studying there
under Gustav Wyneken, a key advocate
of the radical wing of the youth movement and its mission of German cultural
regeneration. Benjamin returned to complete his school studies in Berlin but
remained in regular contact with
Wyneken. After enrolling to study philosophy at Freiburg University in 1912,
Benjamin's commitment to the cultural
and educational politics of youth intensied and he published a number of poetic
and idealistic polemics espousing radical
reform in Wyneken's journal Der Anfang
(`The Beginning') around 1913. Benjamin
returned to Berlin to pursue his university
studies in 1913 and was elected to the
committee, and then to the chair, of the
Free Students Movement there. The days
of his involvement with the Youth
Movement and student politics were
numbered, however. The outbreak of the
Great War in August 1914 split the movement into those who, like Wyneken,
viewed the conict as the very defence
and renewal of German culture, and
those who saw only catastrophe ahead.
Two of Benjamin's closest friends, Fritz
Heinle and Rika Seligson, committed
suicide as a desperate protest against the
hostilities. Deeply moved, Benjamin broke
completely with Wyneken in March 1915.
Three months later Benjamin met an
18-year-old student of mathematics,
Gershom Scholem, an acquaintance who
would prove a lifelong friend and a gure
who would profoundly and enduringly
inuence Benjamin's work in the direction
of Judaic thought, mysticism, and the
Kabbala. Benjamin's concern with the critical and redemptive task of youth gave
way to a preoccupation with redirecting
philosophical enquiry away from the
impoverished Enlightenment conception


of experience, cognition, and knowledge

exemplied by Kant, and towards an
understanding of the linguistic grounding
of truth in revelation. In his enigmatic
fragments from 1916-17 Benjamin identies the task of philosophy, to call things
by their proper name, as the recovery of
the perfect language with which Adam
named Creation at God's behest.
Deemed unt for military service on
account of his poor eyesight, Benjamin
moved to study in Munich in the autumn
of 1915. He managed to avoid subsequent
call-ups by feigning sciatica and, in 1917,
relocated to neutral Switzerland and
Berne University with Dora Kellner,
whom he had married in April 1917.
Benjamin spent the remaining war years
in self-imposed Swiss exile and nally
completed his doctorate on `The Concept
of Criticism in German Romanticism' in
1919. This study sought to develop a
notion of immanent criticism which
unfolded the inherent tendencies of the
work of art, its `truth-content', through
the activity of critical reection. Back in
Germany, Benjamin subsequently undertook to provide an exemplary instance of
such an approach in an extended essay
on Goethe's famous novella `Elective
Afnities'. Eschewing conventional readings of the story as a cautionary moral tale
of tragic, illicit love, Benjamin foregrounds the contrast between human subjection to fate and characterful, decisive
action, a comparison which serves as an
instructive lesson in the need to contest
mythic forces. Above all, for Benjamin,
the protracted death of one of the miscreant lovers, Ottilie, presents the demise
of beauty, its mortication, for a higher
purpose, truth, and thus serves as an allegory of the task of criticism itself.
In the early 1920s Benjamin hoped to
make his mark in literary criticism
through editing his own journal, Angelus
Novus, the `New Angel'. In Judaic
thought, the Angelus Novus appears eetingly before God to sing his praises before
vanishing once more. Benjamin's angel
never made even this brief appearance:
uneasy that the erudite material would


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

prove nancially unviable, the publisher

pulled out before the rst edition was
even nalized. This disappointment
prompted Benjamin's return to the academic sphere and he embarked upon his
Habilitationsschrift (a piece of research
above and beyond the doctoral dissertation which, once completed, would entitle
him to an academic post). Benjamin
studied at the University of Frankfurt,
taking as his theme the seventeenthcentury German play of mourning, the
Trauerspiel. Dismissed as bastardized
tragedies, these baroque dramas with
their preposterous plots and lurid language had long been consigned to the
dusty attic of literary failures. Benjamin's
immanent critique of these scorned and
neglected works fundamentally distinguished them from the classical tragic
form and reinterpreted and redeemed
them as the quintessential expression of
the frailties and vanities of God-forsaken
human existence and the `natural history'
of the human physis as decay. In so doing,
Benjamin argued for the importance of
allegory as a trope which precisely
renders and represents the world as
fragmentation, ruination, and mortication. Now justly celebrated as a critical
masterpiece, Benjamin's (1985c) Origin of
German Tragic Drama (Ursprung des
deutschen Trauerspiels), with its arcane subject matter and esoteric methodological
preamble, bafed and bemused its inept
examiners and Benjamin was advised and
obliged to withdraw his study rather than
face the ultimate humiliation of an outright rejection. By late summer 1925,
Benjamin's ambitions for an academic
career lay in ruins.
Benjamin was thus to spend the rest of
his life eking out a precarious living as a
freelance writer earning money through
contributions to newspapers, literary
reviews, magazines, journals, and even,
in the early 1930s, through writing and
presenting a series of radio broadcasts
for children. Benjamin's growing association with Adorno, whom he met while in
Frankfurt in 1923, and with the Institute
for Social Research also led to a small

stipend, but, as his correspondence continually indicates, his was an insecure and
impecunious condition. As an intellectual
outsider, Benjamin was able to lambast
and lampoon scholarly conventions and
the `fat books' spawned by the overfed and underachieving bourgeois
academy; at the same time, he was
utterly dependent on the good ofces
of publishers, the press, commissioning editors and others who, like
at Sudwestdeutsche
Rundfunk and Siegfried Kracauer at the
Frankfurter Zeitung, offered what work
and remuneration they could. It is
this work of necessity which gives
Benjamin's oeuvre its distinctive sense of
fragmentation and astonishing diversity.
Benjamin translated and wrote on Marcel
Proust; he produced eloquent essays on
such key literary gures as Franz Kafka,
Bertolt Brecht, Karl Kraus, the Surrealists,
and Charles Baudelaire; and also penned
a radio piece entitled `True Stories of
Dogs', a set of reections on Russian
peasant toys, and a review of Charlie
Chaplin. Only this can be said of such
enforced eclecticism: whatever attracted
his attention, Benjamin always discovered
the most telling insights in the least likely
and most trivial of things.
Benjamin was never to write another
book in the, for him compromised, `scholarly' style of his Trauerspiel book, which
was eventually published in 1928. Instead,
the aphorism, the illuminating aside, the
quotation, the imagistic fragment became
his preferred, indeed essential, mode of
expression. In presenting and representing the everyday in a new light, observing
it from an unexpected angle, such miniatures were intended to catch the reader
off-guard (like a series of blows decisively
dealt, Benjamin once observed, lefthanded). Starting with his pen-portraits
of cities he visited (`Naples', `Marseilles',
`Moscow') and his 1926 montage of
urban images One-Way Street (1985b),
Benjamin's writings began to take on a
new, contemporary inection and radical
political colouring. While working on the
Trauerspiel study on Capri in the summer

Walter Benjamin

of 1924, Benjamin had read Georg

Lukacs's History and Class Consciousness
and been introduced to a Latvian theatre
director, Asja Lacis. His enthusiasm for
the former, and his troubled love affair
with the latter, drew Benjamin to Marxist
ideas. In the winter of 19267 Benjamin
visited Moscow to see the new Soviet
system for himself. Benjamin's initial
enthusiasm was tempered by the indifference of the Soviet authorities, the
impossibility of the language, and, above
all, by his unease at the incipient artistic
impoverishment and intellectual compromises already discernible. Benjamin
returned to Berlin where, through Lacis,
he met and became friends with the
playwright Bertolt Brecht. Much to the
dismay of Adorno and Scholem, who
saw Benjamin's always unorthodox and
unconvincing espousal of Marxist ideas
as a foolhardy irtation, he became an
advocate of Brecht's `epic theatre' and
the bald political messages of these didactic dramas. While Benjamin himself
refrained from `crude thinking', its traces
and imperatives are evident in many of
his key writings in the 1930s on the situation and task of the contemporary artist
(`The Author as Producer', [1934] 1983b),
and the character and consequences of
new media forms for the work of art and
aesthetic discourse (especially `The Work
of Art in the Age of Mechanical
Reproduction', [1935] 1973).
Benjamin's concern with the fate of art
within capitalist modernity, with the
Marxist critique of commodity culture,
and with the character and experience of
the urban environment were to combine
in a project which was to preoccupy him
for the rest of his life. Inspired by the
Parisian perambulations of the Surrealist
writer Louis Aragon ([1926] 1987),
Benjamin embarked in 1927 upon a
study of the then ruinous and derelict
Parisian shopping arcades built in the
rst half of the nineteenth century.
Initially modest in scope, Benjamin's
Passagenarbeit or Passagen-Werk (The
Arcades Project, Benjamin, 1999b) was
eventually to comprise over a thousand


pages of notes, quotations, sketches and

drafts, and today remains as an unnished, indeed never written, `prehistory'
of nineteenth-century Paris as the original
site of modern consumer capitalism, as a
plethora of fragments providing for a
panoramic and kaleidoscopic exploration
of the city's fashions and phantasmagoria,
architecture and boulevards, literature
and politics.
It was to Paris, rather than Moscow or
Palestine (where Scholem had emigrated),
that Benjamin ed in 1933 to escape the
Nazi tyranny and terror. There he pursued
his researches for the `Arcades Project' in
the Bibliotheque Nationale, work which
led to a proposed book on Baudelaire
and a series of historiographical reections and principles intended to form a
methodological introduction. Like the
wider Passagenarbeit, these too were
never to be completed. Despite the advice
and efforts of Adorno and Horkheimer,
now in exile in New York, Benjamin lingered too long in Paris and was trapped in
1940 by the German invasion. He ed to
the south of the country, was temporarily
interned and, once released, desperately
sought an escape route. It was not to be.
Benjamin attempted to cross into the relative safety of Spain but was turned back at
the border because of inadequate documentation resulting from last-minute
changes to visa regulations. Wearied by
his exertions, facing certain arrest on his
return to France, Benjamin committed suicide on 26 September 1940. He is buried at
Port Bou.
Benjamin's fragmentary oeuvre presents
a highly eclectic and provocative combination of concepts, themes, and motifs
drawn from a distinctive and diverse set
of sources: Judaic mysticism and messianism; early German Romanticism; modernism, and in particular Surrealism; and a
distinctive, highly unorthodox Marxism.
Moreover, Benjamin was particularly


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

attentive to, and appreciative of, objects

and ideas that had been neglected, disregarded, and passed by. He had a keen
eye for the manner in which the minutiae
of mundane life, the inconspicuous
instances of everyday experiences, could
possess and provide the most profound
insights and profane illumination of modern existence. Long-forgotten dramas,
obsolete objects and outmoded fashions,
children's books and toys, postage stamps
from such curios and collectibles
Benjamin sought to unfold, critique and
redeem the innermost tendencies and
potentialities of contemporary cultural
forms and practices.
How can one do justice to such an intriguing gure and rich body of work within
the necessary limits of an overview such
as this? Benjamin's own playful attempts
to map out his life and work on paper
produced only that ultimate gure of
complexity and confusion: the labyrinth.
Attempts to conceptualize Benjamin's
work by distinguishing between his
early and late writings, dividing his texts
into an initial messianic phase inuenced
by Judaic motifs and themes, and a subsequent materialist period characterized by
Brechtian elements and Marxist orientations, have been rightly criticized for
their failure to perceive the complex continuity of his thought. From mysticism to
Marxism such a simplication obscures
more than it illuminates and suggests
a linearity of development which is thoroughly alien to Benjamin's own work. I
wish to suggest another way of mapping
Benjamin's work, one which draws on
another of his key gures: not the labyrinth, but the constellation, a gure constituted by a plethora of points which
together compose an intelligible, legible,
though contingent, pattern. Benjamin's
work might usefully be seen in terms of
two textual constellations: rst, that of the
Trauerspiel study (comprising his reections on language and translation, his
doctoral dissertation and the essay on
Goethe (both in 19969, Vol. 1), his plans
for Angelus Novus (ibid.), various fragments on fate, history, tragedy, Trauerspiel

and allegory, in 1985b); and, secondly,

that of the `Arcades Project' including
his urban Denkbilder, One-Way Street,
the essays on Proust ([1929] 1973),
Surrealism ([1929] 1985b) and Baudelaire
([19378 and 1939] 1983a), the texts on
Brecht ([1930 and 1931] 1983b), photography ([1931] 1985b) and lm ([1935]
1973), his childhood reminiscences
([1932] 1991) and historiographical theses
([1940] 1973).
Benjamin's dense and enigmatic early
texts on language, truth, and history
`On Language as Such and the Language
of Man ([1916] 1985b), `The Task of
the Coming Philosophy' ([1918] 19969,
Vol. 1), `The Task of the Translator'
([1921] 1973) and the `TheologicoPolitical Fragment' ([19201] 1985b)
combine to articulate what is, at rst
sight, an obtuse and obscure set of ideas.
They are of key signicance, however.
Indeed, though there have been recent
views to the contrary (Caygill, 1997), an
understanding of Benjamin's linguistic
theory is essential for his work as a
whole (see Menninghaus, 1980). These
texts elaborate a fragmentary critique of
Enlightenment and rationalist thought as
involving an impoverished and mechanistic conception of human experience; as a
vain privileging of `progress' based on
the rabid pursuit and accumulation of
scientic knowledge; as the development
of a cold, calculating instrumentality in
human relations with nature; and as the
source of a debased understanding of
human language. Benjamin's critique is
not an articulation of or invitation to irrationalism, but rather seeks to foster an
alternative understanding grounded not
in the mediocrity of scientic knowledge
but in the theological truth of the Judaic
tradition. This should be understood less
as a set of dogmatic principles than as a
mode of gaining critical purchase on the
contemporary human condition.
For Benjamin, the starting point is language. According to scripture, language
in the form of the divine word of God is
the origin of things. Adam is called by
God to name Creation, to give things

Walter Benjamin

their proper names, that is, to translate the

divine and creative word of God into
human language. The blissful, paradisiacal language of Adamic naming comes to
an end with the Fall and shatters into
the multiplicity of historical human languages. Unlike Adam's perfect language,
these are arbitrary in terms of the relation
between word and thing and, in their
plethora of terms for the same phenomenon, overname nature. Human history
is this continuing life amidst a Babel of
prattling languages which reduce nature
to a state of mournful silence. Benjamin
thus counterpoises a history of suffering
and catastrophe against the idea of continual progress; a mystical vision of a sorrowful nature burdened by human folly
against a view of nature as inert material
for human exploitation; an understanding
of the arbitrariness of language as an
index of its fallen condition rather than
as its essential characteristic, as Saussure
(1966) famously contends. For Benjamin,
the task of philosophy as the love of
truth is a redemptive one: to call things
once more by their proper name, to recall
the perfect language of Adamic naming.
Two activities become important here:
translation and criticism. In the work of
translating one language into another,
one discovers a pointer to the shared
origin of language. It is, however, the
task of the critic which becomes
Benjamin's central focus. In his 1919
doctoral dissertation, Benjamin draws
upon the writings of Schlegel and
Novalis, themselves no strangers to the
mystical tradition, to articulate a notion
of immanent critique which emphasizes
the unfolding of truth from within the
work of art itself. Fichte's idea of
the human individual coming to selfconsciousness and self-understanding
through a never-ending process of selfreection is transposed onto the work of
art. For the Romantics, criticism provides
the successive mirrors for the work of art,
through which it comes to reect upon
itself and thereby disclose its meaning
and truth. Truth does not reside in the
intentions of the author, but is perpetually


constituted anew through the work of critique until, recognizing its relationship
with other works of art, the artwork
takes its rightful place within the
pantheon of art, dissolves into the Idea
of art. The self-disclosure of the meaning
and the self-discovery of truth of the
work of art occur during its `afterlife', conceived as on-going criticism and nal dissolution.
Like the essay on the `Elective
Afnities', Benjamin's Trauerspiel study
sought to provide an exemplary instance
of immanent critique in which the work of
art was subjected not so much to a process
of reection, as one of ruination or mortication for the sake of its truth content.
Benjamin's intention was to correct two
fundamental misunderstandings of the
Trauerspiel form. First, it should be distinguished from tragedy. The baroque
plays were not failed attempts to produce
classical dramas, but had a completely different grounding and purpose: instead of
a concern with myth and the fate of the
tragic hero, the Trauerspiel presented the
dismal events of history as they conspired
to ruin the sorrowful sovereign. It is not
ennobling heroic action but human indecision which leads to catastrophe and
melancholy. The Trauerspiel involves the
articulation and illumination of a mournful and utterly profane realm of creaturely
compulsion and human misery in a Godforsaken world. This nds expression in
allegory. In recovering the Trauerspiel as a
distinctive and legitimate aesthetic form,
Benjamin also redeems allegory. Benjamin
rejects the usual privileging of the symbol
as the aesthetic gure par excellence, and
instead argues for the importance of the
much derided allegorical form. The dramatists of the baroque relied on this
trope and, drawing on medieval emblematics, extended the range of allegorical
referents such that dramatic objects came
to take on manifold signicance. In this
overdetermination, objects and words,
because they can refer to so many contradictory things, lose any precise sense.
Allegory hollows out meaning, ruins it,
reduces language to verbose prattle.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Allegory, like criticism, thus becomes a

form of mortication which discloses a
truth: the postlapsarian condition of language as arbitrary overnaming.
Benjamin understood his Passagenarbeit
as a clear counterpart to his Trauerspiel
study. The arcade and the play of mourning were both monadological and ruinous
entities from which to unfold fragmentary
insights into, and illuminations of, the
past and its relationship with the present:
of the nineteenth century as the prehistory
of modernity, and of the seventeenth
century as the origin of the baroque
imagination. If the Trauerspiel study
brought together immanent critique, ruinous history, and mournful, mute nature,
the `Arcades Project' and its constellation
of texts combined `strategic critique',
redemptive history and the melancholy,
mnemonic cityscape.
`Strategic critique' (Caygill, 1997), or
(Gilloch, forthcoming) involves a political
understanding of the writer within the
capitalist production process (of the
`author as producer') and of the meltdown of conventional bourgeois aesthetic
forms and categories. Benjamin argues
that the progressive critic/artist must pioneer and embrace new cultural forms
(epic theatre), practices (interruption,
montage, distraction) and media (radio,
photography, lm) to explode/implode
the traditional work of art itself. `Aura' is
the fundamental concept here. In his
`Small History of Photography' (1931)
and his `Work of Art in the Age of
Benjamin famously argues that `aura',
the sense of awe, reverence, and distance
experienced in the presence and contemplation of the work of art, a function of its
cultic origins, authenticity and embeddedness in tradition, is dissolved by the
advent of new media. Film and photography replace the unique painting with
the multiplicity of the negative and
print in which there is no distinction
between original and copy. In these
media, distance gives way to proximity,
concentrated contemplation to distracted

appropriation, cultic worship to political

engagement and pedagogical practice.
The construction of the `Arcades
Project' was to be based on the imperatives of polytechnical aesthetic engineering and was to develop historiographic
principles which radically contested
bourgeois `historicist' understandings of
the past and the duty of the historian.
The Passagenarbeit was to be imagistic in
insights into a mosaic or, in Benjamin's
new terminology, a montage of elements.
It was conceived not as a simple narration
of the past but as a critical intervention
into its afterlife. Arcades, fashions, commodities these phantasmagorical and
fetishized forms were indices not of
historical progress but of new forms of
mythic domination and human subservience. Inspired by the Surrealists,
Benjamin's gaze focused on the `afterlife'
of these fantastical `dream' forms the
ruined arcade, the obsolete object, the outmoded artefact so as to disenchant them
and redeem their utopian promise. As
they are ruined, ridiculed, and demolished, the enslaving forms of yesteryear
yield their critical potential, their revolutionary energy, their truth. History is not a
bald and bland recounting of events, but a
political engagement with, and actualization of, the past. The past is not given, but
is continually recongured according to
the interests of the present. This intersection and interplay of the `then' and the
`now' was conceptualized by Benjamin
within a visual register: as the `dialectical
image', the key methodological category of
the Passagenarbeit.
The `dialectical image' was inspired
both by the instantaneousness of the
photographic snapshot (Konersmann,
1991) and by the transformation of experience and memory in the modern metropolis. For Benjamin, the cityscape is a site of
shock, amnesia, and remembrance.
Baudelaire's allegorical poetics constitute
a melancholy language with which to give
expression to the hollowed-out commodity form and the collapse of coherent, communicable experience (Erfahrung) amid

Walter Benjamin

the swarming metropolitan crowd. The

gures of the aneur, the gambler, the
prostitute, and the ragpicker serve as allegories of the modern poet who endures
the shock collisions and eeting encounters of the cityscape. Forgetfulness might
seem the obvious corollary of such
trauma, but the city is also the setting
and stimulus for a particular mode of
remembering: Proust's memoire involontaire. Memories are not recoverable at
will, but rather, return unexpectedly and
unbidden. An occurrence or accident in
the present eetingly recalls former and
forgotten impressions and experiences.
Past and present momentarily intersect
and mutually illuminate one another.
The dialectical image is the transposition
of the memoire involontaire into a historiographic method which recognizes those
whom conventional history has consigned
to the oblivion of forgetting.
Intentionless knowing and the eeting
and fragmentary disclosure of truth;
melancholy silence and the sorrowful
condition of human existence; history as
ruination and redemption; criticism as
mortication and construction: such
themes underpin the Passagenarbeit, the
Trauerspiel study, and indeed Benjamin's
work as a whole. Hence, and this is fundamental, the conceptualization of
Benjamin's oeuvre as two constellations
should not be thought of as reproducing
the facile dichotomy of messianism versus
materialism. These constellations are not
to be envisaged as distinct chronological
phases, rather they must be imagined as
superimposed, one upon the other so that
now this one, now the other, takes precedence, appears closest to us. The notion of
constellations captures both the potential
duplicity of any scheme points
that seem nearest to one another may
prove those furthest apart and, most
importantly, their contingency. Each
constellation is recognized as only one
permutation among an innite number of
possible congurations, conjunctions, and
correspondences. Such is the intricacy,
such the interplay, such the ingenuity of
Benjamin's writings.



In his notions of the dialectical image and
afterlife of the work of art, Benjamin is
precisely concerned with the resonance
and relevance of the past in the present.
Meaning is continually being reconstituted and recongured, actualized, in the
present through critical mortication and
appropriation. The work of art becomes
legible in specic ways at particular historical junctures. In this manner, Benjamin
presents a way of understanding the interpretation and reassessment of his own
texts by subsequent commentators as a
critically transformative and open endeavour. Indeed, Benjamin's transformation
from neglected outsider to key theoretical
innovator perhaps has much to do with
the way in which his work is seen to pregure and chime with contemporary
(postmodern) cultural thought, while
maintaining a keen and critical political
edge. Preguring the `cultural turn' in
social theory, his texts are preoccupied
with developing a complex and sophisticated understanding of the relationship
between cultural products/texts and the
socioeconomic, ideological, and historical
conditions which give rise to them, which
they express, and which they transform.
There are a number of aspects here
which give Benjamin's writings a particular pertinence today: the centrality of the
fragment, the afterlife of the text, the legibility of the city, the reproducibility of the
image, the reclamation of the past.

The Fragment
The world is broken into fragments, is
legible in fragments and is representable
through fragments these are axiomatic
for Benjamin. His interest in the
Trauerspiel in particular was encouraged
by the recognition that the baroque an
era scarred by the experiences of war and
economic chaos; fascinated with the
pathetic, profane condition of humanity
bereft of transcendence; and characterized


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

by an aesthetic of ostentation, excess, and

waste might have a special signicance
for, an `elective afnity' with, his own
time, itself convulsed by the carnage of
the Great War, the nancial turmoil and
ination of the Weimar years, and a
sense of cultural crisis. Ruins and remnants are all that survive such calamitous
events and the shattering of ontological
certainties and existential consolations
(Baudrillard, 1997: 9). They perhaps also
have an acute relevance for the postmodern condition, dened in terms of the
collapse of venerable `grand narratives'
(Lyotard, 1984), a radical scepticism with
respect to the claims of science, humanism,
and `progress', and a privileging instead of
eclecticism, alterity, and irony. As totalizing explanatory systems with their universal claims and teleological promises
become ever less tenable, we are left to
play scornfully but ruefully with their
pieces, to survey their foundations now
reconceptualized as vainglorious ruins.
The apposite aphorism, the quotation out
of context, the shocking juxtaposition of
heterogeneous elements these textual
tactics are neither unique to, nor instigated by, Benjamin, but they do have a
particular prominence in his work and
pertinence today. `Baroque reason' (BuciGlucksmann, 1994) and Benjamin's
`charmed circle of fragments' may have a
special attraction for the social theorist in
the era of late capitalism.
The Text
Benjamin's notion of immanent criticism
as a process of unfolding the work of
art, as the continual constitution and
reconstitution of its meaning in its afterlife, is extremely suggestive and pregures some key postmodern insights.
Such criticism seeks neither to (re)discover some original authorial intention
nor to impose the canonical aesthetic
judgments of self-appointed literary
experts. The meaning of a text is determined by the manner of its apprehension
and comprehension in the present. The
decentring of the author is accompanied

by the elevation of reading and interpretation. Indeed, textual meaning is

never xed and nalized but always contingent, open to `endless interpolations',
Benjamin both observes and exemplies
in his Trauerspiel study, genuine criticism
radically contests the traditional evaluation of texts. Neglected and disdained
forms are to be recovered and restored,
and `lesser works' are to be subject to the
same careful scrutiny as supposed greater
ones because, Benjamin observes, the
architecture of the genre is more apparent
in their design.
If the texts of Benjamin's Trauerspiel constellation disturb traditional cultural and
aesthetic hierarchies, those associated
with the `Arcades Project' purposefully
explode them. The critic as aesthetic
engineer sabotages bourgeois aesthetic
categories and the pretensions of the artistic genius to locate texts in sociohistorical
matrices and material conditions and
reposition the author as producer. Read
against the grain, texts, such as
Baudelaire's poetry, do not crudely reect,
but intricately express and critically
articulate prevailing circumstances and
tendencies. Whether canonical works of
art or banal and popular forms, texts are
hieroglyphs demanding patient translation and interpretation. Such an understanding has a particular appeal for those
who argue for textual deconstruction and
relish the postmodern implosion of high
and popular cultural forms.
The City
In identifying the modern metropolis as
the principal locus of commodity culture,
Benjamin's various writings on urban
space and experience have become
key points of departure for contemporary
theorists of consumption and the city
(cf. Baudrillard, 1998). Benjamin's contribution is of fundamental signicance.
He not only recognizes commodity consumption as the hallmark of metropolitan
modernity, but also seeks to locate consumer practices within wider cultural

Walter Benjamin

patterns: fashion, advertising, and display; architecture, design, and lighting;

notions of progress and technological
change; and, fantasy, fetishism, and sexuality. Indeed, the Parisian arcades, with
their phantasmagorical construction and
inversion of space, are readily recognizable as the precursors of contemporary
shopping malls with their street simulations and themed interiors. Benjamin's
work is a necessary starting point for
scholars concerned with the proliferation
of the commodity form and the spectacular superabundance of images, signs,
and things in the contemporary city.
Importantly Benjamin's physiognomy of
the cityscape is concerned with deciphering urban objects and structures, with
making them legible as signs and rebuses.
Under his gaze, the city is transformed
into a `semiotic universe', a text to be
read. In so doing, Benjamin not only pregures concerns with the legibility of
urban space (Lynch, 1960; de Certeau,
1984), but also introduces one of the
most suggestive and frequently invoked
gures in discussions of urban culture
and experience, the aneur (Tester, 1994;
Gilloch, 1999).
The dawdling dandy has been recongured (and regendered) as a trope to elucidate and explore a plethora of urban
(and virtual) experiences and activities:
the prototypical sociologist (see Frisby,
1981, and in Tester, 1994); the privileged
male gaze and the absence/presence of
woman in the nineteenth-century city
(Wolff, 1990; Wilson, 1991; Walkowitz,
1992); shoppers, tourists, and travellers;
streetwise radicals and subversives (see
Jenks, 1995; de Certeau, 1984); channelhoppers and samplers; and internet browsers and cybersurfers (see Hartmann,
forthcoming). On the one hand, the aneur is understood as the quintessential
postmodern pedestrian: the banal seeker
of distraction amid the malls, theme-parks
and other pseudo-public spaces of the
postmodern city (Bauman, in Tester,
1994). On the other, the aneur returns
as an intrepid expert in the knowing and
nonchalant use of public space (Jenks,


1995). The aneur has been transformed

from the snobbish spectator into an
ideal, intellectual exponent of the cityscape, the utopian urbanite (Morawski,
in Tester, 1994).
The aneur has a particular relevance
for postmodern theory beyond such identications and debates. He is the ultimate
gure of fragmentation and limitation. As
a wanderer in the city, it is the aneur who
lacks an overview of the metropolitan
whole, who is afforded no panoramic or
bird's-eye perspective. The aneur is not a
privileged spectator in this sense, but,
granted only an ant's eye-view, a limited
witness of a complexity which eludes his
vision and understanding, a melancholy,
`heroic' actor buffeted by forces but dimly
perceived. Indeed, the aneur is a part of
that which he observes he watches
the crowd and is a member (however
reluctantly) of that crowd. Spectator and
spectacle are one and the same. As a
result, the aneur is a gure in perpetual
motion there is no safe and stable vantage point from which to behold events,
but only a series of briey held positions
offering glimpses of a world itself in ux.
Collapsing subject and object, partial in
scope, situated yet shifting, the vision of
the aneur provocatively pregures that
of the postmodern social theorist.
The Image
Benjamin's interest in the political
potential of new media and his positive
evaluation of lm, radio, and photography provide a welcome counterpoint
and corrective to the indiscriminate and
undifferentiated tirade against the `culture industry' produced by Horkheimer
and Adorno. For example, Benjamin's
rejection of contemplation as a mode of
aesthetic appreciation in favour of the
`distraction' experienced by the cinemagoer radically contests critical theory's
vision of the stultied, infantalized,
media audience. Indeed, only Kracauer
and Benjamin among the `Frankfurt
School' writers genuinely recognize and
explore the complexities of new visual


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

cultural forms. Benjamin's understanding

of the photographic image as containing
a `spark of contingency', an unexpected
element captured by the photographer
which disturbs the intended meaning of
the picture and which produces a shock
of recognition in its reader, pregures
Barthes's (1993) attempt to comprehend
the power of certain photographs through
the concept of the punctum (see Krauss,
1998; Price, 1994).
Most important, perhaps, is Benjamin's
prescient recognition of the fundamental
transformation of the work of art occasioned by the advent of new technologies
of reproducibility and the move from the
dichotomy of original/fake to an endless
series of identical items without an original. For Baudrillard (1994), Benjamin here
identies a key stage in the history of
representation, one which has now given
way to an era characterized by the precession of simulacra, of the model, the
`fake'. Benjamin's arguments in the `Work
of Art' essay are radicalized by Baudrillard
in his vision of the pre-eminence of the
simulation and the constitution of the
more real than real, the hyperreal.

History is made in the image and interests

of those who have been victorious in the
past and are powerful in the present.
Benjamin demands that the critical historian `brush history against the grain' to
reveal those who have been unsuccessful,
silenced and silent, the past of those who
are powerless in the present. To remember
the sufferings of the forgotten dead and
redeem their traces for the sake of the living this call for a counterhistory of modernity is an inspiration to those engaged in
the struggle to rethink the past so as to
refashion the present and future: the
poor, the oppressed, the downtrodden.
And, of course, Benjamin's writings
themselves are objects to be redeemed,
recongured, and reinterpreted as part
of a vital critical tradition. To read,
recognize and remember Benjamin as a
key gure for contemporary social theory
is the undertaking to which this prole
has sought to contribute, however modestly, however imperfectly. If the present
reader is encouraged to pursue such an
enterprise, this text will have fullled its

The Past


Benjamin is not only important for the

history of the image, but also for the
image of history. His historiographic
`Theses' present a perceptive and timely
critique of scientic and social `progress'
as the human domination of nature and
continuing barbarism. Writing against
both Enlightenment and orthodox
Marxist thinking, Benjamin's argument
that human emancipation does not reside
in the mere overcoming of scarcity
through the instrumental exploitation of
nature but rather only in the development
of a harmonious relationship with nature
pregures one of the principal themes of
subsequent critical theory (Adorno and
Horkheimer, 1986; Horkheimer, 1974a,
1974b; Marcuse, 1964) and contemporary
ecological thought.
In addition, the `Theses' point to the
construction and fabrication of history.

Benjamin, W. (1991) Gesammelte Schriften, Vols I-VII.

(Eds. Rolf Tiedemann and Herman Schweppenhauser, with the collaboration of Theodor Adorno
and Gershom Scholem.) Frankfurt am Main:
Suhrkamp Verlag; Taschenbuch Ausgabe.
Benjamin, W. (19959) Gesammelte Briefe, Vols I-V.
(Eds. The Theodor W. Adorno Archive).
Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp Verlag.

English Language Translations of Benjamin's

Benjamin, W. (1973) Illuminations. (Ed. and
`Introduction' by Hannah Arendt. Trans. Harry
Zohn). London: Fontana.
Benjamin, W. (1978) Reections: Aphorisms, Essays and
Autobiographical Writings. (Ed. Peter Demetz.
Trans. Edmund Jephcott). New York: Harcourt,
Brace, Jovanovitch.
Benjamin, W. (1980) Aesthetics and Politics: Debates
between Bloch, Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin, Adorno.
(Trans. and ed. Ronald Taylor. `Afterword' by
Frederic Jameson). London: Verso.

Walter Benjamin
Benjamin, W. (1983a) Charles Baudelaire: A Lyric Poet
in the Era of High Capitalism. (Trans. Harry Zohn).
London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. (1983b) Understanding Brecht. (Trans.
Anna Bostock. `Introduction' by Stanley
Mitchell). London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. (1985a) `Central Park'. (Trans. Lloyd
Spencer), New German Critique, 34: 2858.
Benjamin, W. (1985b) One-Way Street and Other
Writings. (Trans. Edmund Jephcott and Kingsley
Shorter. `Introduction' by Susan Sontag). London:
Benjamin, W. (1985c) The Origin of German Tragic
Drama. (Trans. John Osbourne, `Introduction' by
George Steiner). London: Verso.
Benjamin, W. (1986) Moscow Diary. (Ed. Gary Smith.
Trans. Richard Sieburth. `Preface' by Gershom
Scholem). Cambridge, MA and London: Harvard
University Press.
Benjamin, W. (1989) `N. (Re the theory of knowledge,
theory of progress' (Trans. Leigh Hafrey and
Richard Sieburth), in Gary Smith (ed.) Benjamin:
Philosophy, Aesthetics, History. Chicago: University
of Chicago Press.
Benjamin, W. (1994) The Correspondence of Walter
Benjamin. (Ed. and annotated by Gershom
Scholem and Theodor Adorno. Trans. Manfred
Jacobson and Evelyn Jacobson, `Foreword' by
Gershom Scholem). Chicago and London:
University of Chicago Press.
Benjamin, W. (1992) The Correspondence of Walter
Benjamin and Gershom Scholem 19321940. (Ed.
Gershom Scholem. Trans. Gary Smith and Andre
Lefevre, `Introduction' by Anson Rabinbach).
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Benjamin, W. (19969) Selected Writings. Vols 1 and 2.
(Eds Marcus Bullock and Michael Jennings et al.)
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Benjamin, W. (1999a) Theodor W. Adorno Walter
Benjamin: The Complete Correspondence 19281940.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Benjamin, W. (1999b) The Arcades Project. Trans.
Howard Eiland and Kevin McLaughlin.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.

ber Walter Benjamin. (Ed.
Adorno, Theodor (1990) U
Rolf Tiedemann). Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp
Adorno, Theodor and Horkheimer, Max (1986)
Dialectic of Enlightenment. London: Verso.
Aragon, Louis (1987) Paris Peasant. London: Picador.
Barthes, Roland (1993) Camera Lucida. London:
Baudrillard, Jean (1994) Simulacra and Simulation.
Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.


Baudrillard, Jean (1997) Fragments. Cool Memories III,

19915. London: Verso.
Baudrillard, Jean (1998) The Consumer Society: Myths
and Structures. London: Sage.
Benjamin, Andrew and Osborne, Peter (eds) (1994)
Walter Benjamin's Philosophy: Destruction and
Experience. London: Routledge.
Bolz, Norbert and van Reijen, Willem (1996) Walter
Benjamin. New Jersey: Humanities Press.
Brodersen, Momme (1996) Walter Benjamin: A
Biography. London: Verso.
Buci-Glucksmann, Christine (1994) Baroque Reason:
The Aesthetics of Modernity. London: Sage.
Buck-Morss, Susan (1977) The Origin of Negative
Dialectics: Theodor Adorno, Walter Benjamin and the
Frankfurt Institute. Hassocks, Sussex: Harvester
Buck-Morss, Susan (1983) `Benjamin's Passagenwerk:
Redeeming mass culture for the revolution', New
German Critique, 29: 21140.
Buck-Morss, Susan (1989) The Dialectics of Seeing:
Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project.
Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Caygill, Howard (1997) Walter Benjamin: The Colour of
Experience. London: Routledge.
Cohen, Margaret (1993) Profane Illumination: Walter
Benjamin and the Paris of Surrealist Revolution.
Berkeley, Los Angeles and London: University of
California Press.
De Certeau, Michel (1984) The Practice of Everyday
Life. Berkeley: University of California Press.
Doderer, Klaus (ed.) (1988) Walter Benjamin und die
Kinderliteratur. Weinheim and Munich: Juventa
Eagleton, Terry (1981) Walter Benjamin: Or Towards a
Revolutionary Criticism. London: Verso.
Ferris, David (ed.) (1996) Walter Benjamin: Theoretical
Questions. Stanford CA: Stanford University Press.
Fischer, Gerhard (ed.) (1996) With the Sharpened Axe of
Reason. Approaches to Walter Benjamin. Oxford:
Frisby, David (1981) Sociological Impressionism: A
Reassessment of Georg Simmel's Social Theory.
London: Heinemann.
Frisby, David (1988) Fragments of Modernity: Theories
of Modernity in the Work of Simmel, Kracauer and
Benjamin. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Fuld, Werner (1990) Walter Benjamin: Eine Biographie.
Reinbeck bei Hamburg: Rowohlt Taschenbuch
Geuss, Raymond (1981) The Idea of a Critical Theory:
Habermas and the Frankfurt School. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Gilloch, Graeme (1996) Myth and Metropolis: Walter
Benjamin and the City. Polity Press: Cambridge.
Gilloch, Graeme (1999): `The return of the aneur:
the afterlife of an allegory', New Formations, 38:
Gilloch, Graeme (forthcoming) Walter Benjamin:
Critical Constellations. Polity Press: Cambridge.


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Habermas, Jurgen (1983) `Walter Benjamin: consciousness-raising or rescuing critique', in

Handelman, Susan (1991) Fragments of Redemption:
Jewish Thought and Literary Theory in Benjamin,
Scholem and Levinas. Bloomington: Indiana
University Press.
Hartmann, Maren (forthcoming) `The cyberaneuse
strolling freely through the virtual worlds?',
in On/Off + Across: Language, Identity and New
Technologies. London: The Cutting Edge Research
Group in conjunction with I. B. Tauris.
Held, David (1980) Introduction to Critical Theory.
London: Hutchinson Press.
Horkheimer, Max (1974a) Critique of Instrumental
Reason. New York: Seabury.
Horkheimer, Max (1974b) Eclipse of Reason. New
York: Seabury.
Jager, Lorenz and Reghely, Thomas (eds) (1992) `Was
nie geschrieben wurde, lesen'. Frankfurter BenjaminVortrage. Bielefeld: Aisthesis Verlag.
Jameson, Frederic (1971) Marxism and Form.
Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Jay, Martin (1974) The Dialectical Imagination: a
History of the Frankfurt School and the Institute
of Social Research 19231950. London: Heinemann.
Jenks, Chris (ed.) (1995) Visual Culture. London:
Jennings, Michael (1987) Dialectical Images: Walter
Benjamin's Theory of Literary Criticism. Ithaca, NY:
Cornell University Press.
Konersmann, Ralf (1991) Erstarrte Unruhe: Walter
Benjamins Begriff der Geschichte. Frankfurt am
Main: Fischer Verlag.
Krauss, Rolf (1998) Walter Benjamin und der neue Blick
auf die Photographie. Ostldern/Stuttgart: Cantz
Lindner, Burkhardt (ed.) (1978) Walter Benjamin im
Kontext. Konigstein/Ts: Athenaum Verlag.
Lunn, Eugene (1985) Marxism and Modernism: An
Historical Study of Lukacs, Brecht, Benjamin and
Adorno. London: Verso.
Lynch, Kevin (1960) The Image of the City. Cambridge,
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Condition: A Report on Knowledge. Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
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Actuality of Walter Benjamin. London: Lawrence
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(1993) Literatur uber Walter Benjamin: Kommentierte
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University Press.

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An Essay on His Radio Years. Chicago and London:
University of Chicago Press.
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Benjamins Passage des Mythos. Frankfurt am Main:
Suhrkamp Verlag.
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Walter Benjamin and the Scenes of Modernity.
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of Redemption. New York: Columbia University

Jurgen Habermas



orn in 1929, Jurgen Habermas

grew up in Gummersbach,
Germany. Between 1949 and 1954,
he studied at the Universities of
Gottingen, Zurich, and Bonn. After a
short spell as a journalist, he became
Theodor Adorno's assistant at the
Institute for Social Research at Frankfurt.
The early Frankfurt School clearly inuenced the young Habermas but he soon
developed his own research programme.
He initially taught at the University of
Heidelberg and at the Max Planck
Institute; for the latter part of his teaching
career he was at the Johann Wolfgang
Goethe University in Frankfurt. Since the
early 1970s Habermas has become one of
the leading critical theorists in the world.
The term `critical theory' may need
some explanation. Critical theorists do
not simply describe or explain the social;
they aim at evaluating it. In particular, critical theorists attempt to demonstrate the
potential and deciencies of contemporary society. The early Frankfurt School
aimed to develop such a critical theory as
opposed to what Adorno and Horkheimer
dismissively coined as `traditional theory'.

In this respect some commentators have

been tempted to see Habermas's critical
theory as a revamped version of the project of the early Frankfurt School.
Furthermore, like the interdisciplinary
nature of the early Frankfurt School,
Habermas draws upon a wide range of
disciplines which include linguistics,
sociology, philosophy, and psychology.
Finally, like Adorno and Horkheimer,
Habermas pays attention to the problematic nature of the project of modernity,
in particular the spread of meansends
But this is only part of the story.
Although some of Habermas's views are
indebted to his old mentor, to treat his
oeuvre simply as the extension of
Adorno or Horkheimer's concerns would
be a gross misrepresentation. First,
Habermas's writings are indicative of a
(post-1945) generation of German social
theorists who clearly transcend their
national roots. Whereas Adorno and
Horkheimer draw extensively upon
German authors like Marx, Nietzsche,
Weber, and Freud, Habermas's work
appears far less embedded in the
German intellectual tradition. Habermas
is inuenced by a wide variety of intellectual traditions that include, for instance,

Jurgen Habermas

Parsons's system theory (obviously

American), pragmatic philosophy (also
a truly American project), `ordinary
language philosophy' (initiated by
Wittgenstein and developed by Oxford
philosophers), and ethnomethodology
(initially a Californian product). Second,
whereas Adorno and Horkheimer deplore
the increasing meansends rationality
in the West, Habermas's appraisal of
modernity is more subtle. For him rationalization is a twofold and selective process: it not only entails the spread of
instrumental rationality but also communicative rationality. As communicative
rationality refers to procedures of open
discussion and criticism, rationalization
is not to be rejected in toto. As a matter
of fact, communicative rationality
becomes the base for Habermas's critical
theory. By contrast with Adorno, for
whom the aesthetic domain provides a
defence against instrumental rationality,
Habermas's solution resides in the dialogical notion of reason. Finally, whereas
the early Frankfurt School provides a
comprehensive critique of bourgeois
society, Habermas argues that liberal
democracy presupposes his notion of
communicative rationality. As such, it is
possible to develop a critique of bourgeois
society from within.
This brings me to the core of
Habermas's thinking. Habermas's leitmotif, one may say, is the notion of unconstrained, open debate amongst equals. His
1962 Habilitationschrift (advanced doctoral
dissertation) `Structural Transformation in
the Public Sphere' already expressed this
idea. With the advent of bourgeois society,
so Habermas contends, there was some
potential for realizing the ideal of a `discursive will-formation'. Unfortunately
our society today is far from such an
`open' society, not in the least because
the media have contributed to the trivialization of politics. But the ideal of a `public
sphere' is still worth pursuing. Society
ought to be organized such that procedures are in place that allow for open
discussion and criticism. The social philosopher ought to instruct people not upon


what they decide but how they come to

those decisions. Habermas's The Theory of
Communicative Action, probably his most
well-known work to date, elaborates
further on this idea, and locates communicative rationality in linguistically
mediated interaction. This highly abstract
work, originally published in 1981, aims at
dening the concept of rationality whilst
avoiding a Cartesian philosophy of consciousness. The very same notion of
open unconstrained debate underscores
his recent work on law and ethics, Moral
Consciousness and Communicative Action
and Justication and Application: Remarks
on Discourse Ethics.
Another of Habermas's chief concerns
is the epistemological foundation of the
social sciences. Theory and Practice,
Knowledge and Human Interests, and On
the Logic of the Social Sciences (all rst
published between the late 1960s and
early 1970s) deal with this issue.
Habermas attempts to dene critical
theory in relationship to two rival traditions in the philosophy of the social
sciences: hermeneutics and positivism. He
also reects upon the deciencies and
fruitfulness of structural-functionalism
and system theory then prominent
Habermas's position is moderate compared to say Adorno's. Whereas Adorno
unambiguously rejects positivist epistemology and traditional theory, Habermas
is careful not to pour the baby out with the
bathwater and is willing to take on board
some empiricist, functionalist, and systemtheoretic notions.
Habermas's writings often reect upon
real changes in society, and engage with
contemporary intellectual debates. For
example, Towards a Rational Society:
Student Protest, Science and Politics (a
collection of articles from the 1960s)
reects upon the student uprisings in
Germany and the then current political
Habermas's concern is mainly with the
loss of `substantive rationality'; politics
is no longer directed towards obtaining
ultimate values, but towards avoiding


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

technical problems that endanger the

smooth functioning of the social and economic system. In Legitimation Crisis
Habermas contends that this shift towards
technical politics plus the in-built economic instability of capitalism leads to
recurrent political crises. Indeed, political
legitimacy nowadays depends heavily
upon the state of the economy, but perpetual economic crises are intrinsic to the
current capitalist mode of production. In
this atmosphere, authority in the political
sphere has become highly unstable.
Not only does Habermas comment on
contemporary sociopolitical phenomena,
he also engages with the work of
other intellectuals. His well-known The
Philosophical Discourse of Modernity
defends the Enlightenment project against
antimodernist, post-structuralist and
postmodern assaults such as those by
Nietzsche, Derrida, and Foucault. Maybe
exchanges with Niklas Luhmann vis-avis the use and disuse of system theory
their co-authored Theorie
Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie. More
contentiously, Habermas has also entered
a debate concerning the historical writings
about Nazi Germany. The edited volume
The New Conservatism addresses that
which is known in Germany as the
Aufarbeitung der Vergangenheit the coming to terms with the past.
A comparison with Karl Popper is
appropriate in the context of Habermas's
involvement in public debates. Popper
also advocated the principles of open dialogue and criticism, both in science and
politics. The irony is that Popper himself
showed no patience for different views, let
alone for critics of his works. Contrary to
the spirit of his own doctrine, Popper
remained remarkably reluctant to learn
from dialogue with others. Habermas, on
the other hand, genuinely engages with
others and shows willingness to be persuaded by what he himself calls the
`force of the better argument'. In short,
considering Habermas's notion of communicative rationality, he practises what
he preaches.


Critical Theory
Habermas's earlier work deals with the
epistemological foundations of the social
sciences, in particular critical theory.
Partly by using Peirce's pragmatism,
Habermas develops a typology of different forms of knowledge: empiricalanalytical knowledge, hermeneutics, and
critical theory. Habermas claims that these
types of knowledge are linked to three
forms of a priori interests. These interests
are `basic orientations' tied to essential
conditions of reproduction and selfconstitution of the human species.
Empirical-analytical knowledge aims at
control and prediction, whereas hermeneutics aims at understanding. Critical
theory attempts to emancipate, and it
relies upon a combination of empiricalanalytical and hermeneutic knowledge.
To emancipate is to question presuppositions that previously were taken for
granted, and to eliminate sociopsychological constraints. In Habermas's
knowledge operates at the level of `instrumental action' or `work', hermeneutics at
the level of `language' and `interaction',
and critical theory deals with `asymmetrical relations' or `power'.
Habermas to locate his epistemological
position. Habermas criticizes positivism
for regarding empirical-analytical knowledge as the only valid knowledge.
Habermas's point is not that empiricalanalytical knowledge is awed as such,
but that it is only one type of knowledge
amongst many and one that is appropriate for obtaining control and prediction
only. It would be a mistake, Habermas
continues, to regard empirical-analytical
types of knowledge as sufcient for
gaining understanding or emancipation.
After all, different aims call for different
types of knowledge.
In his assault on positivism, Habermas
also borrows from Gadamer's hermeneutics. Like Gadamer, Habermas appears

Jurgen Habermas

sceptical of the early positivist notion

of value-free and theory-independent
knowledge. Any knowledge acquisition
relies upon theoretical presuppositions;
the latter is not an impediment for the
former but its precondition. This is not
to say that Habermas follows Gadamer
blindly. Habermas is highly critical of
Gadamer for not taking seriously the
notion of critique. Gadamer is of course
right when he asserts that people's
knowledge relies upon assumptions that
form part of a tradition, but he ignores
the fact that not all assumptions (or traditions) are equally defensible. For
Habermas, Gadamer's insights need to
be supplemented by `depth hermeneutics'. As such, Habermas develops a yardstick that allows one to compare, contrast,
and evaluate various traditions, and so
identify ideological distortions.
This brings me to the third type
of knowledge: critical theory. For
Habermas, critical theory draws upon
the two other forms of knowledge but
it differs from both in that it aims at
self-emancipation. Psychoanalysis is
Habermas's prime example of critical
theory. The psychoanalyst employs interpretative techniques so as to help the
patient re-enact hitherto repressed memories and wishes. In this context,
Habermas talks about `depth hermeneutics'. Whereas `hermeneutics' refers to
the interpretative techniques involved,
the notion of `depth' alludes to the fact
that the psychoanalyst tries to go beyond
the surface level and gain access to
repressed experiences and desires. Depth
hermeneutics then enables the psychoanalyst to obtain empirical-analytical knowledge in that he or she gains access to those
causal mechanisms that have hitherto
inhibited the personal growth of the
patient. But the ultimate aim of psychoanalysis is to uplift these restrictions.
Psychoanalysis is one example of critical theory; historical materialism is
another. What psychoanalysis manages
at an individual level, historical materialism accomplishes in the social realm. Like
psychoanalysis, historical materialism


uncovers previously latent structures

and is ultimately aimed at enhancing
reection and critical awareness.
Theory of Communicative Action
I mentioned earlier that Habermas's
account of the Enlightenment project is
not altogether negative. As a matter of
fact, the political institutions of liberal
democracy already imply the notion of
open debate, and it is precisely this vision
of communicative rationality which
underlies the theory of `universal pragmatics' as spelled out in the two volumes
of Theory of Communicative Action. As such
Habermas appeals for a communicative
notion of reason as opposed to subjectcentred
Habermas's main point is to show that a
radical potential is implied in language.
There are two important building
blocks to Habermas's theory of universal
pragmatics. First he assumes that people
are able to make distinctions, in particular
between three realms: external nature,
society, and internal nature. External nature deals with correct representation of
things, society with the moral rightness
of social rules, and internal nature refers
to issues of intentions and sincerity.
Second, Habermas's notion of rationality
presupposes communication, and he elaborates on this by drawing upon speech
act theory, in particular Austin's distinction between locutionary and illocutionary speech acts. This is a distinction
between saying something on the one
hand, and doing something by saying
something on the other. In Habermasian
parlance, every speech act can be divided
up into a propositional and an illocutionary level.
These two ideas lead to Habermas's
notion of `validity claim'. Whilst communicating, people implicitly presuppose
four culturally invariant `validity claims':
`intelligibility', `truth', `moral rightness',
and `sincerity'. Implicit in the act of speaking is that what is said makes sense (intelligibility), that its factual content is correct
(truth, linked to the external world), that


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

the speaker is justied in saying this

(moral rightness, related to the social
world), and that he or she is not attempting to deceive anybody (sincerity, which
ties in with the internal realm). Take, for
example, a university teacher who
describes a student's essay as `unnished
but promising'. Habermas's point would
be that, by making that assertion, much
more has been said than meets the eye.
Implicit in making the statement is the
presupposition by the teacher that the
statement is intelligible and factually correct, and that the teacher is perfectly justied in expressing the view in that way.
Also implicit is that the teacher is not trying to deceive the student or anybody else
by saying this: for instance, the teacher is
not saying it to distract attention from
other issues.
Habermas wants to promote `undistorted communication' which allows
people to openly defend and criticize all
validity claims. He introduces the `ideal
speech situation' as a yardstick to compare between and judge real situations.
The ideal speech situation is an ideal
type of open debate for all; no constraints
are put onto the debate except for the
`force of the better argument'. All individuals can enter the dicussion on an equal
footing, and no repressed motives or selfdeceit affect the outcome.
Let us examine the example of the
teacher and student once again. In an
ideal speech situation, the student would
be able to challenge the teacher. The
student might claim that the teacher's
comment is vague (`what does ``promising'' mean exactly?') or wrong (`several
passages are very insightful indeed').
The student might also argue that it is
not acceptable for a teacher to take such
a stance (`how dare you patronize me like
that?'), or that, regardless of whether the
comment is true or false, the intention was
to deceive (`you are trying to distract
attention from your poor lecture reports').
In an ideal speech situation the teacher
would also be able to present a defence
without constraints. The initial comment
may be claried (` ``promising'' as ``having

potential'' ') or shown to be correct

(`although nicely put together, the essay
is too much of a cut and paste work
based on secondary sources'). The teacher
may also argue that he or she is perfectly
justied in saying this (`what else am I, as
your teacher, to say than the plain truth
about your essay?') or that there was no
attempt to deceive (`this is a time slot
devoted to assessing your essay, not my
lectures'). Note that in the ideal speech
situation all constraints, external (sociological) and internal (psychological), are
to be lifted. For example, neither teacher
nor student can appeal to power to
impose their view (`I will have to fail
you if you keep on challenging what I
say'). Nor would they be intimidated by
the other or exhibit fear of retaliation.
Habermas is anxious to emphasize that
not all validity claims can be redeemed
through discourse. Intelligibility and sincerity cannot be reclaimed in that way; the
former can only be demonstrated by
rephrasing the original assertion, the latter
merely through action. But truth and
moral rightness can be redeemed in ideal
speech situations. Hence Habermas introduces a procedural notion of rationality
and truth: rather than suggesting absolute
foundations of knowledge, he suggests
particular procedures for arriving at
knowledge. In particular Habermas's
consensus theory of truth refers to
agreements reached by equal participants
in an open debate. It follows that knowledge is always temporary held until
these participants arrive at a different
Habermas describes societal and individual development in terms of increasing
rationalization. In this respect he sees a
homology between the two types of development. With regard to psychological
development, Habermas draws upon the
writings of Piaget and Kohlberg. Each
phase leads to a `decentring' of an egocentric view of the world. Children gradually learn to distinguish between different
realms of reality (the subjective, the objective, and the social). Eventually children
learn to reect critically upon their actions

Jurgen Habermas

and values by taking on board other perspectives. As for societal development,

Habermas argues that mythical world
views conated nature, culture, and the
external world. Only gradually did people
manage to distinguish the different realms
and, mutatis mutandis, to develop the
ability for a rational Lebensfuhrung.
Habermas has spent the last two decades expanding on the theory of communicative action, rening some of its central
notions, and applying it to various realms.
In particular, Habermas elaborates on
ethics, and on issues regarding law and
the state. Take Habermas and Apel's discourse ethic, which is a direct application
of the theory of universal pragmatics to
the realm of ethics. The notion of an
open discussion, aimed at agreement,
does not simply relate to matters of fact,
but also to moral issues. Their discoursebased ethical theory starts from two
assumptions. First, discourse ethics treats
normative validity claims like truth
claims; they are regarded as having a cognitive meaning. Second, Habermas and
Apel believe that the grounding of
norms and prescriptions requires a dialogue. As such, discourse ethics attempts
to transcend the opposition between `formal' and `communitarian' perspectives on
ethics. Moral judgments are not simply
the conclusions reached by isolated individuals, nor do they simply reect social
The same discourse-based approach is
applied to law and the state. Habermas
rejects Luhmann's view that legal and
political decisions are so complex that
they should be left in the hands of experts.
For Habermas, these issues ought to be
subject to public discussion, and attempts
should be made to inform as many people
as possible and to include them in
the debate. More generally, Habermas's
appeal for `discursive democracy'
attempts to conceive of law in terms of
`discursively achieved understanding'. In
a discursive democracy, norms are valid
when they are accepted by the individuals
who are potentially affected by these
norms, and if this acceptance is based


upon rational discourse. Discursive

democracy is especially relevant today.
After all, a multicultural society cannot
be founded any longer on universal
values or a social contract. For
Habermas, contemporary society should
be based on universal procedures of discursively achieved understanding.
There is no doubt that Habermas is one of
the most inuential social theorists of his
generation although his writings have
been controversial and provoked many
criticisms. In what follows I will rst
discuss the legacy of Habermas, and
then discuss some of its deciencies.
The Legacy
Habermas's writings are signicant for
many reasons. Two are especially worth
mentioning: his relationship to the
Enlightenment and to critical theory.
Habermas is one of the most coherent
and persuasive defenders of the project
of Enlightenment. Enlightenment thinking has come under severe attack in the
latter part of the twentieth century, especially in the writings of post-structuralist
and postmodern authors like Foucault,
Derrida, and Lyotard. Of course, the rst
assaults on the project of modernity preceded the work of these French intellectuals, but the critical comments of,
say, Nietzsche, Adorno, and Horkheimer
became inuential only when the postmodern bandwagon was well on its way.
Whilst the Enlightenment project was gradually regarded as vieux jeu, Habermas has
remained one of its staunch defenders,
and a very persuasive one. In the midst
of these assaults on the Enlightenment,
Habermas has consistently tried to underscore and promote its dialogical nature
not an entirely original idea, but one
easily overlooked by its French critics.
The solution, Habermas argues, is to
divorce Enlightenment thinking from a


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Cartesian philosophy of consciousness

(Bewutseinslosoe). Once the separation
is completed, the French objections seem
to lose their grip.
Second, the contemporary status of
critical theory would not be the same
without Habermas's contributions. Here
again Habermas is not afraid to go against
the Zeitgeist. In the 1960s there was a
growing interest in critical theory but little
epistemological groundwork had been
done. Habermas lled the gap. He managed to dene critical theory in opposition
to rival forms of knowledge (positivism
and hermeneutics), and made a serious
epistemological case for critical theory.
During the 1970s and early 1980s several
sociologists and philosophers regarded
the idea of critical theory as intellectually
awed, and it is precisely during this period that Habermas developed his theory
of universal pragmatics the basics
behind his critical theory. On a related
theme, Habermas's lifelong preoccupation with the `public sphere' spurred a
huge interest in sociology, politics, and
philosophy, and remains one of the
empirical cornerstones of contemporary
critical theory (see, for instance, Calhoun,
Critique of Habermas
It is important to distinguish between how
Habermas's writings have been received
on the one hand, and my own assessment
on the other. I will therefore rst spell out
a number of criticisms that can regularly
be found in the secondary literature, and
then move on to what I personally see as
his main deciencies.
This is not the place to provide an
exhaustive list of the various criticisms
of Habermas's writings. The list is simply
too long, and Habermas has incorporated
some of these criticisms into his own work
anyway. I will briey elaborate on one
recurrent, and not unimportant, criticism.
That is, Habermas has often been criticized for failing to provide a solid empirical base for his theorizing. Take his rst
major book, The Structural Transformation

of the Public Sphere. Some commentators

argue that the empirical evidence is at
best imsy. Habermas may have overstated the prominence of a public sphere
at the beginning of the nineteenth century.
Other than some privileged members of
the bourgeoisie, few appeared to have
had access to the public sphere (Negt
and Kluge, 1993; Landes, 1988; Ryan,
1990). The critics certainly have a point
in that, given his liberal political agenda,
Habermas pays remarkably little attention
to the extent to which women or minorities tended to be excluded from the sociopolitical debates of the time. Habermas
now agrees with this, and furthermore
concedes the feminist point that the exclusion of women (and their allocation to a
private sphere) was probably constitutive
of the emergence of the bourgeois public
sphere (see his `Further Reections on the
Public Sphere' in Calhoun, 1992). In
Habermas's defence, however, it needs to
be added that he actually never asserted
that the public sphere embraced all sections of society. What he did write is that
there was more scope for these debates
than there is now, and that this juxtaposition allows one to infer a yardstick in
order to judge and compare between present institutions. As Habermas commented, 30 years after The Transformation of the
Public Sphere was published:
What I meant to do was to take the liberal limitations of public opinion, publicity, the public
sphere, and so on, at their worst, and then try to
confront these ideas of publicness with their selective embodiments and even the change of their
very meaning during the process of transformation from liberal to organized capitalism, as I
described it at that time. (Calhoun, 1992: 463)

Not only has his earlier work been subject

to the criticism that his empirical evidence
is awed; his theory of communicative
action has been also. Habermas draws
upon what he calls `reconstructive
sciences' to support his case, and amongst
these are, for instance, Piaget and
Kohlberg's account of personal development. Recently, however, a signicant
amount of empirical counterevidence
has been mounted against these theories.

Jurgen Habermas

For example, although Kohlberg's theory

might be applicable to men, women's
development appears to be very different
(e.g. Gilligan, 1982). Habermas also
draws upon Levi-Strauss's studies of
primitive societies again a highly contentious set of analyses. Although these
criticisms are justied, they actually
indicate a deeper lacuna in Habermas's
writings. That is, Habermas tends to
implicate the work of other theoreticians
to support his case. Whether he
elaborates on, say, the theory of communicative action or his theory of
societal evolution, Habermas shows how
other theoreticians have adumbrated
his own theory. This may serve well to
illustrate the theory but it is not
particularly persuasive as a proof of its
I will now move on to what I personally
see as the main weaknesses of his theory.
For the sake of brevity, I will focus on his
theory of communicative action, which is
after all his most important contribution
to social theory.
First, the notion of Verstandigung has a
double meaning. Note that Habermas
asserts that communicative rationality is
directed towards Verstandigung. But
Verstandigung means both understanding
and consensus. It may well be the case that
an unconstrained, open debate between
equals leads to a situation in which each
has a better grasp of the other's position,
but to understand better somebody's
viewpoint is by no means to acquiesce. I
agree that the debate might be an opportunity for each participant to learn about
the exact nature of the others' position.
Each may clarify under which adjustments the other's position is acceptable.
Each may clarify what he or she means
by the concepts involved, and so on.
There is indeed a lot to be said for clarifying these ambiguities. But it is also true
that there are few cases in which individuals, who had very different opinions to
start off with, end up converging. This
shows that both his theory of communicative action and its attendant discourse
ethics have a limited range.


Second, his notion of the `force of the

better argument' is problematic. Underlying Habermas's communicative notion
of reason is the belief that there is a neutral
algorithm that will enable individuals to
decide between competing perspectives.
Habermas's algorithm can be found in
the vision of an open, unconstrained
debate between equals. In this ideal-type,
only the force of the better argument
Habermasian position is that it stands or
falls with the assumption that people
necessarily agree on what counts as a
superior or inferior argument. One does
not have to be a sophisticated sociological
observer to realize that there are remarkably few cases in which people disagree
about signicant topics whilst agreeing
on what counts as a proper way of arguing
about these issues. This qualication seriously limits the scope of Habermas's
research programme. Moreover, there is
often a lack of disagreement about how
to argue properly if the participants in
the debate occupy different cultures,
`forms of life', or paradigms: for instance,
whether people consider it legitimate to
refer to religious texts, scientic ndings,
or popular myths will depend on a number of culturally embedded assumptions.
It could of course be counterargued that
what counts as the force of a better argument can be decided by another open
debate and so on. But this is only to postpone and highlight the severity of the problem as one enters a regression ad
Lastly, the problem with the ideal
speech situation is not that it is unreal in
itself (it is after all a yardstick that allows
one to judge real settings), but that it is
devoid of real people. Remember that
Habermas's ideal speech situation not
only excludes external constraints such
as power; it also rules out internal constraints. An internal constraint is any psychological feature that may inhibit people
from openly criticizing others and defending themselves. For instance, being
impressed by authority gures or to be
embarrassed about expressing oneself in


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

public are examples of how internal constraints may interfere with unconstrained
Habermas is that these psychological
characteristics are so tied in with our
everyday notion of what it is to be an individual that it becomes difcult to eradicate them without succumbing to
remarkably impoverished notions of self
and personhood. Even leaving aside this
point, the individuals in the counterfactual have such different psychological
compositions that they ought probably to
be treated as different entities. Again, this
seems to put into doubt the practical value
of the yardstick.


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Protest, Science and Politics. London: Heinemann.
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Habermas, J. (1983) Philosophical-Political Proles.
London: Heinemann.
Habermas, J. (1987a) Knowledge and Human Interests.
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Habermas, J. (1987b) The Philosophical Discourse of
Modernity. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1988) On the Logic of the Social Sciences.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1989a) The Structural Transformation of
the Public Sphere: An Inquiry into a Category of
Bourgeois Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1989b) The New Conservatism: Cultural
Criticism and the Historian's Debate. Cambridge:
Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1990) Moral Consciousness and
Communicative Action. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Habermas, J. (1991a) The Theory of Communicative
Action, Volume 1: Reason and the Rationalization of
Society. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1991b) The Theory of Communicative
Action, Volume 2: Lifeworld and System: A Critique
of Functionalist Reason. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Habermas, J. (1993) Justication and Application:
Remarks on Discourse Ethics. Cambridge: Polity
Habermas, J. (1998) On the Pragmatics of
Communication. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.

Habermas, J. and Luhmann, N. (1971) Theorie der

Gesellschaft oder Sozialtechnologie. Frankfurt:

Alway, J. (1995) Critical Theory and Political
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the Works of Horkheimer, Adorno, Marcuse and
Habermas. London: Greenwood Press.
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Habermas's Theory of Communicative Action.
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Sphere. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Chambers, S. (1996) Reasonable Democracy, Jurgen
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Freud and the Critique of Positivism. Chicago:
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Age of the French Revolution. Ithaca, NY: Cornell
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McCarthy, T. (1978) The Critical Theory of Jurgen
Habermas. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Negt, O. and Kluge, O. (1993) The Public Sphere and
Experience. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota

Jurgen Habermas
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and Ballots, 18251880. Baltimore: John Hopkins
University Press.
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the Thought of Paul Ricoeur and Jurgen Habermas.
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Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Erving Goffman



rving Goffman was born in

Canada in 1922. He completed a
BA in sociology and anthropology
at the University of Toronto in 1945 and a
PhD in sociology at the University of
Chicago in 1953. For his doctoral thesis
(`Communication Conduct in an Island
Community'), Goffman spent a year living and observing social interaction on a
small island community off the coast of
Scotland. Goffman wrote his doctoral dissertation in Paris where he became familiar with existentialism. Drawing on his
research in the Shetland Isles, Goffman
published his rst major work The
Presentation of Self in Everyday Life in
1956. The reissued version of this book
in 1959 would become Goffman's most
popular and widely read work. From
1954 to 1957, Goffman studied the
behaviour of staff and patients in psychiatric hospitals rst, in the National
Institutes of Health Clinical Center in
Bethesda, Maryland and then at St
Elizabeth's Hospital in Washington, D.C.
His research in these two settings formed
the basis of his book Asylums (1961a), a
collection of essays that examined the

subjective experience of inmates in `total

At the invitation of Herbert Blumer,
Goffman joined the sociology faculty at
the University of California at Berkeley
in 1957. Quickly rising to the status of
full professor in 1962, Goffman remained
at Berkeley until 1968. During his years in
California, he conducted eldwork in Las
Vegas casinos. Though never fully developed and reported, this work contributed
to his formulation of a game perspective
in social life. Implicit in much of his work,
the game metaphor is explicitly utilized in
Encounters (1961b), `Where the Action Is'
(Published in Goffman, 1967), and Strategic
Interaction (1970). In 1968, Goffman took a
position at the University of Pennsylvania
where he remained until his death. Here,
Goffman became involved with the
university's prominent sociolinguistics
school. His encounter with sociolinguistics, begun during his years of doctoral
study but intensied in his years at
Pennsylvania, formed the basis for much
of his later work, particularly Forms of
Talk (1981) and `Felicity's Condition'
(1983a). Prior to his death in 1982,
Goffman was President of the American
Sociological Association. His ASA presidential address `The Interaction Order'

Erving Goffman

(1983b), undelivered due to his fatal illness, articulates the guiding premise of
more than two decades of his work: that
there is an order to face-to-face interaction
that is worthy of sociological study in its
own right.
Goffman cannot easily be placed into
any particular theoretical school, nor has
his own work generated a `Goffman
School'. Goffman's graduate training at
Chicago, one of the two leading schools
of sociology in the United States at the
time, was probably the greatest inuence
on his approach. At Chicago, Goffman
was supervised by both sociologists and
social anthropologists, including Lloyd
Warner, Robert Park, Ernest Burgess, and
Everett Hughes. The Chicago School at
the time drew no clear boundary between
social anthropology and sociology,
emphasizing `participant observation' as
the favoured method of empirical
Goffman rejected the label `symbolic
interactionism', a term coined by Herbert
Blumer and derived from George Herbert
Mead's social psychology, because he
believed it was too vague to be useful.
Although Goffman found Mead's and
Blumer's ideas congenial, he was committed in his own work to empirical
study and attention to the structure of
the social world that he believed was
missing in Mead's and Blumer's work.
Including Georg Simmel as a foundational
gure in the development of symbolic
interactionism, Goffman's work could
even more comfortably be included in
this tradition. Goffman learned Simmel's
ideas in graduate school at Chicago and
took Simmel's charge for sociologists to
study the otherwise unnoticed and seemingly trivial actions and interactions in
everyday life as a basis for his own sociological approach. Furthermore, if symbolic interactionism is dened loosely as
a sociological approach that focuses on
understanding the meaning rather than
the causation of social behaviour an
approach advocated by Max Weber and
by the social phenomenologist Alfred
Schutz Goffman ts squarely within


this tradition. Though ultimately critical

of phenomenology and ethnomethodology, Goffman credits Schutz's paper
`On Multiple Realities' as a source of inuence on Frame Analysis (1974).
Goffman also considered himself a
structural-functionalist of sorts. Like the
functionalists Talcott Parsons and Robert
Merton and unlike social constructionists,
Goffman believed that individuals come
into a world largely premade and do
very little of the constructing themselves.
Goffman's basic concern with the question
of what makes sustained social interaction
possible, furthermore, parallels the central
question of the functionalist tradition,
namely, `what makes society possible?'
(Loand, 1980: 378). Goffman included
Emile Durkheim as one of the most inuential gures in his intellectual development. The `interaction rituals' that
Goffman describes, rituals focused especially on afrming the dignity and worth
of the self, parallel the religious rituals in
Durkheim's analysis whereby social solidarity is produced. In The Division of Labor
in Society and in the short essay
`Individualism and the Intellectuals',
Durkheim had argued that individualism
is the only common morality of modern
society and that regard for the dignity,
freedom, and worth of the individual
must therefore replace traditional forms
of religious worship. Goffman's analysis
portrays a social world in which such
reverence for the self has indeed become
the basis of social order. Compatible with
Durkheim's view that society rests on a
basis of morality, the social world
described by Goffman is one in which
moral norms, sentiments, emotions, and
feelings much more than thoughts and
interests drive human behaviour.
Though Goffman was inuenced by
diverse and prominent gures in the
history of sociological thought, he vehemently opposed canons and the studying
of social theorists as an end in itself.
Goffman's approach was to take whatever
insight can be gained from sociological
forerunners and get on with the business
of studying social life. Was Goffman a


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

social theorist? He would say not, though

he might also say that he was as much of a
social theorist as anyone else. He did not
believe sociology had advanced to the
stage of constructing theories and hypotheses and thus did not think there was
such a thing as a social theory at all.
Furthermore, no sharp distinctions can
be made in his work between the empirical and the theoretical. Reported observations (his own and others') make up the
majority of his written work. Yet, these
observations are interwoven into conceptual frameworks insightfully crafted by
Goffman. And this is how Goffman
dened the current task of sociology:
`We are just trying to get reasonable
classications, one or two useful concepts,
ways of touching on and describing processes and practices . . .' (Verhoeven, 1993:
340. Verhoeven (1993), Burns (1992), and
Manning (1992) are primary sources of
biographical information on Goffman. In
particular, I relied heavily on Verhoeven's
interview with Goffman for information
on Goffman's intellectual background.
Certainly, it is Goffman's conceptual
frameworks much more than any particular observations of social life that have
drawn enduring attention. In addition to
Goffman's extraordinary gift for `touching
on and describing processes and practices'
(Verhoeven, 1993: 340) of everyday life, an
important contribution to social theory in
its own right, Goffman's analyses develop
a number of core social theoretical themes
including the social production of
self, the ritual basis of social life, the interaction order, and the organization of
The Social Production of Self
One of the most central themes in
Goffman's work is his analysis of the
social production of the self. Although
the idea that the self is a product of social

life was earlier developed by George

Herbert Mead, Goffman's idea is less
abstract and more radical than Mead's.
Mead's idea was that the self arises in
social experience, that development of
the ability to view oneself from the
perspective of the `generalized other'
precedes the development of self.
Goffman's idea is that the self does not
merely arise in social experience, but it is
a product of the social scene or a dramatic
effect of performances in social life.
In The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life,
Goffman distinguishes between the selfas-performer and the self-as-character.
The self-as-performer refers to the
human being as a psychobiological organism with impulses, moods, energies, and
feelings who is driven to be regarded
favourably by others. The self-as-performer, according to Goffman, is `universal
human nature' and is an essential basis
of motivation for social participation and
conformity to the rules of social life.
Though the self-as-performer could accurately be thought of as something `inner',
Goffman argues that it is not the self-asperformer but rather the self-as-character,
or the character performed, that most in
our society have in mind when they
speak of the self. The self-as-character is
a product of performances in social life.
Goffman quotes Park, who says that the
`mask is the truer self' (Goffman, [1956]
1959: 19). Goffman admits that we have
a sense of self as separate from the performance, but that this sense of self is a
product of the performance and not the
cause of it (Goffman [1956] 1959: 2523.)
Essential to any performance is the support and reception it receives from others,
and this is why the self cannot be understood to be a property of the individual to
whom it is attributed.
Perhaps the greatest part of Goffman's
work can be viewed as an analysis of the
contingencies involved in sustaining a
self. The Presentation of Self is an analysis
of the techniques used in everyday life to
build and sustain images of self. Noting
that we do distinguish between theatre
and real life, Goffman uses drama as a

Erving Goffman

metaphor for analysing the performances

of everyday life to demonstrate that both
`real' and `contrived' images of self and
reality require successful staging for
their realization in social life. In Asylums
(1961a), Goffman looks at what happens
to the self when the usual supports for
staging a self such as autonomy, privacy,
control of material resources, an occupational identity are lacking. By analysing
how the self is mortied in `total institutions', institutions such as prisons and
psychiatric hospitals which control every
aspect of the inmate's life, Goffman's aim
is to `help us to see the arrangements that
ordinary establishments must guarantee if
members are to preserve their civilian
selves' (1961a: 14). Stigma (1963b) deals
with another source of difculty in the
staging of the self: the potential discrediting to which selves are subject. `Normal'
identity, Goffman says, is dened in terms
of culturally-valued attributes which
few of us fully possess or achieve. Stigma
analyses the variety of ways in which discreditable persons manage discrediting
information in order to maintain a
semblance of normality, as well as the
ways in which discredited persons, that
is, persons known to possess a stigmatizing attribute, manage the implications of
their stigma. Though Goffman outlines a
number of strategies stigmatized persons
have for dealing with stigma, he suggests
that `normal' society calls for the stigmatized to minimize any interactional disruption that might result from the stigma
and to accept treatment as `not quite
The Ritual Basis of Social Life
Although Goffman uses the metaphors of
drama and the game, the predominant
image of social life that runs through his
work is that of a ritual order. The central
focus of his work, particularly his work of
the 1950s and 1960s, is an examination of
how the social routines, the face-saving
practices, and the trafc rules of everyday
social interaction are used to maintain
social order. Much of his work especially


Interaction Ritual (1967), Behavior in Public

Places (1963a), and Relations in Public
(1971) is a ne-grained analysis of the
seemingly trivial rules of conduct of social
life and of the mechanisms that lend
stability to social order. `On FaceWork' ([1955] 1967) is an analysis of the
face-saving practices that social actors
routinely employ in social interaction
and of how these practices enhance social
order. `The Nature of Deference and
Demeanor' ([1956] 1967) analyses the
deferential behaviours individuals are
expected to use to build the images of
others and the proper demeanour that
individuals must exhibit to maintain
their own images. Both, he argues, are
essential not only to the individual's
image of self but also to the social order.
`Embarassment and Social Organization'
([1956] 1967) examines embarrassment as
an aspect of orderly behaviour. When an
individual projects an image of self that
cannot be sustained in social interaction,
a show of embarrassment demonstrates
recognition of this fact and thereby communicates regard for the obligations
that were breached. `Alienation from
Interaction' ([1957] 1967) examines the
obligations of individuals to be ready for
spoken interaction and how such readiness is necessary `if society's work is to
be done' (1967: 1356). In Behavior in
Public Places (1963a), Goffman outlines
the `situational proprieties' of social interaction and argues that, though seemingly
trivial, these `give body to the joint social
life' (1963: 196). Similarly, Relations in
Public (1971) examines a variety of social
routines and practices that are used to
afrm social relationships, social rank,
and social order.
According to Goffman, face-saving and
the trafc rules of social interaction go
hand in hand. The primary motivation
of individuals, Goffman assumes, is to
be regarded favourably by others. This
motivation draws them to social life and
motivates them to demonstrate approved
attributes and abide by rules of conduct in
social interaction. Face-saving (of self and
others) is the most fundamental trafc


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

rule of social interaction and is essential to

the maintenance of social order ([1955]
1967: 12). Drawing on Durkheim's analysis
of ritual as a basis of social solidarity,
Goffman argues that the self has become
a sacred object in modern life. `Many gods
have been done away with, but the individual himself stubbornly remains as a
deity of considerable importance' (1956:
55). According to Durkheim's theory,
such respect for the individual would be
essential to the social solidarity of modern
society. As the increasing complexity of
society dissolved the common beliefs,
norms, and shared ways of living characteristic of earlier societal forms, Durkheim
believed that individualism could be the
only common basis of morality and was
therefore essential as a basis of social solidarity. According to Goffman, the obligation that members of social life feel to
cooperate in afrming the dignity of self
and others in everyday social interaction
attests to the supreme value of the individual in modern society. Also as Durkheim
had suggested, Goffman argues that this
felt obligation to provide such supportive
worship is a primary basis of social order.
Unlike Durkheim, who promoted individualism in the context of defending the
right of intellectuals to think freely and
criticize existing social institutions,
Goffman implies that the accommodative
approach that individuals take towards
one another's faces is a somewhat
more conservative dynamic. As Goffman
says in Interaction Ritual: `Approved
attributes and their relation to face
make of every man his own jailer; this
is a fundamental social constraint even
though each man may like his cell'
([1955] 1967: 10).
The Interaction Order
Typically, Goffman was not one to enter
into meta-theoretical debates about such
issues as the relationship between interaction and social structure. Implicitly,
social class was apparent in many of
Goffman's works as a variable affecting
the dynamics of social interaction. But

rarely was Goffman concerned to specify

the relative primacy of interaction and
social structure. In the introduction to
Frame Analysis he did state offhandedly
that he considered social organization
and social structure to be primary relative
to the organization of experience in social
encounters (1974: 13). Only in `The
Interaction Order' (1983b), however, did
Goffman explicitly address the relationship between social interaction and social
structure. Here he argues that the interaction order should be considered `a substantive domain in its own right' (1983b:
2). Though he emphasizes that considering the interaction order a substantive
domain in its own right does not imply
the viewpoint that interaction is prior to
or constitutive of society and macro-level
social organization, it does imply that
there is an order to social interaction that
does not entirely derive from larger social
structures. In some respects, he argues,
the interaction order is autonomous relative to social structure. Although he
admits differences in resources and
advantages within the interaction order
that derive from structures of inequality
in the larger society, he argues that the
forms and processes of the interaction
order are independent of these inequalities
`the central theme remains of a trafc of
use, and of arrangements which allow a
great diversity of projects and intents to
be realized through unthinking recourse
to procedural forms' (1983b: 6).
Not only is the interaction order relatively autonomous from society and social
organization, but Goffman suggests that
the interaction order can have a direct
impact on larger social structures. An
implicit theme throughout Goffman's
work is that the norms of social interaction
for example, deference and demeanour,
distribution of personal territories according to social rank, protective and defensive facework contribute signicantly
to consolidating social hierarchies that
otherwise might be quite tenuous.
Organizational life, Goffman points out,
depends on `people-processing encounters. . . . It is in these processing encounters

Erving Goffman

. . . that the quiet sorting can occur which,

as Bourdieu might have it, reproduces the
social structure' (1983b: 8). Though the
interaction order typically plays a conservative role, Goffman suggests that the
processing that occurs in social interaction
`may consolidate or loosen structural
arrangements' (1983b: 8).
The Social Construction of Experience
A central theme that runs through
Goffman's work from The Presentation
of Self in Everyday Life (1956) to Frame
Analysis (1974) is that human experience
is socially constructed. Goffman disagreed with the hyperrelativism of social
constructionism, a perspective that he
believed accorded an undue amount of
power to individual actors to dene situations that are constructed prior to their
arrival in particular situations. Adopting
a Durkheimian line, Goffman argues
that society is external to and prior to the
individual, that social situations have
a structure to them, and that individual
participants usually arrive at rather
than construct denitions of situations
(Collins, 1988: 58). As Goffman puts it in
the introduction to Frame Analysis, W.I.
Thomas's statement that denitions of
situations are real in their consequences
is `true as it reads but false as it is taken'
(1974: 1). Arguably, a major portion of
Goffman's work could be accurately
understood as an elaboration on
Thomas's statement.
To answer such basic questions of social
life as `what is going on here?' or `who
is this person really?', Goffman suggests
that we must discern the frames or
principles of interpretation that provide
meaning to any spate of activity. In other
words, a person or an event rarely `speaks
for itself'. An act of caring for a child,
for instance, could be understood as
`parenting', `babysitting', or `kidnapping'.
Though the physical motion involved in
the act might be identical in each instance,
the meaning of the act varies according
to the frame that governs it. Goffman
suggests that there is a certain `objective


reality' to the frames that govern our

experience, in the sense that frames are
usually anchored in layers of other frames
and in societal and situational structures
that we as individuals do not control.
In the sense that he believed there was a
reality to the social world to be discovered, Goffman considered himself a
positivist. But, as positivists go, he heavily
emphasized that the `objective reality' of
the social world was built out of a myriad
of framing devices and interactional techniques by which human beings give
meaning to their experience. That there is
no `original' beneath the layers of frames
and no `real self' beneath the performances
of social life is a common theme that connects The Presentation of Self with Frame
Goffman's work has held wide appeal and
has generated a variety of interpretations,
often contradictory ones, by social
theorists. Due at least in part to
Goffman's evasion of placement within
any theoretical school, it could almost be
said that Goffman has been everything to
everybody! Goffman is considered a symbolic interactionist and a critic of symbolic
interactionism. His theory of the self
is applauded by postmodernist social
theorists, while others interpret his view
of the self as a counter to postmodernism.
Goffman's work has been criticized by
some existentialists for its portrayal of
the inauthenticity of human actors and
applauded by others for its portrayal of
the human struggle to maintain authenticity in the face of attack. Goffman has been
criticized for presenting a cynical view
of social life, while others see him as a
moralist of sorts who is concerned with
the maintenance of trust, morality, and
order in social life. Goffman has been
interpreted as a conservative functionalist and a radical social critic. In this
section, I shall elaborate on each of
these interpretations.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Goffman and Symbolic Interactionism

Goffman's analytic focus on the self, social
interaction, and the interpretive frames
that give meaning to human experience
has earned him inclusion in the symbolic
interactionist camp, and he has accordingly received criticism commonly directed at symbolic interactionists for
inattention to social structure, social
inequality, and social-historical context
and for failure to formulate ways in
which larger social processes constrain
microsocial interaction. In The Coming
Crisis in Western Sociology, Alvin
Gouldner argued that Goffman's
is a sociology of co-presence, of what happens
when people are in one another's presence. It is
a social theory that dwells upon the episodic and
sees life only as it is lived in a narrow interpersonal circumference, ahistorical and noninstitutional, an existence beyond history and society
. . . . Goffman's image of social life is not of rm,
well-bounded social structures, but rather of a
loosely stranded, criss-crossing, swaying catwalk
along which men dart precariously. In this view,
people are acrobatic actors and gamesmen who
have, somehow, become disengaged from social
structures and are growing detached even from
culturally standardized roles. (Gouldner, 1970:

Similarly, Allan Dawe argues that

Goffman's work portrays a social world
lacking in power, class conict, and political domination (Dawe, 1973: 2478).
Countering the view of Goffman as
neglectful of structural inequalities of
power, Rogers (1977, 1980) argues that
Goffman offers insight into the nature of
power as a pervasive fact of people's
everyday lives (1977: 88). According to
Rogers, Goffman is `clearly sensitive to
the unequal distribution of opportunities
for face-maintenance as well as the ways
in which social-structural factors render
problematic the sense of self-determination through pressures toward conformity'
(Rogers, 1980: 115).
Though Goffman's inclusion in the
interactionist camp is merited by his
micro-analytical focus, he is also accurately understood as a critic of symbolic
interactionism a structuralist of sorts

who emphasizes that social situations are

socially structured prior to any individual's arrival at them (Collins, 1988;
Gonos, 1980; Katovich and Reese, 1993).
As Randall Collins (1988) puts it:
`Symbolic interactionists focus on the
ability of individuals to transform meaning in social situations; Goffman stresses
that situations have a structure to them
that is external and prior to the individual'
(Collins, 1988: 58). Similarly, George
Gonos (1980) argues that Goffman
`inverts' symbolic interactionism by eliminating the view of the `self' as a free subject and creator of the world and replacing
this view with an institutional view of the
self (Gonos, 1980: 158). Katovich and
Reese (1993) include Goffman among
late modern interactionists who went
beyond the early interactionists conception of a natural harmony between the
self and society to a conception of selves
`pitted against an obdurate reality which
included overpowering and often hostile
societal responses' (Katovich and Reese,
1993: 404).
Existentialist and Postmodern
Interpretations of Goffman's Analysis of Self
Goffman has been criticized by existentialists and humanists for portraying the
inauthenticity of the human self and
endowing inauthenticity with an equal
claim to reality as `authentic' experience
(MacIntyre, 1969; Gouldner, 1970; Dawe,
1973). Gouldner argues that Goffman
`declares a moratorium on the conventional distinction between make-believe
and reality, or between cynical and the
sincere' (Gouldner, 1970: 380). MacIntyre
(1969) argues that Goffman `dissolves the
individual into his role-playing performances', losing from view human agency
and morality (MacIntyre, 1969: 447). Dawe
argues that personal identity, if there is
even such a thing in Goffman's analysis,
can survive only by concealment (Dawe,
1973: 248).
In contradiction to this interpretation,
other existentialists and humanists have
read Goffman's work as a depiction of

Erving Goffman

the self's struggle to maintain integrity in

the face of dehumanizing social constraints (Friedson, 1983; Creelan, 1984;
Loand, 1980). Friedson characterizes
Goffman as a `celebrant and defender of
the self against society' (Friedson, 1983:
362) and points out `Goffman's deep
moral sensibility, the compassion he displays for those whose selves are attacked,
whose identities are spoiled' (Friedson
1983: 361). Creelan (1984) likens
Goffman's moral perspective to the
moral struggle depicted in the Book of
Job. Loand (1980) points out an afnity
Goffmanian portrayal of the self as a
`stance-taking entity' who acts to promote
dignity and freedom. Goffman's work,
Loand argues, can be viewed as a `search
for the conditions under which people can
be persons' (Loand, 1980: 48).
An alternative and more recent interpretation has been to identify Goffman's
analysis of the self with postmodernist
social theory, insofar as both challenge
the notion that the `self' is a stable, inner
reality (Tseelon, 1992; Dowd, 1996;
Battershill, 1990). Tseelon argues that the
Goffmanesque self is postmodern, consisting of surfaces or performances, a
transient self which is situationally or
interactively dened. Goffman himself,
Tseelon argues, did not take issue with
the question 'when is performance more
sincere?' because in true postmodern
spirit he regarded even sincere performance as nonetheless constructed and
was more concerned with the mechanics
of creating an appearance and less with
the relationship between appearance and
reality (Tseelon, 1992: 124). Also characterizing Goffman's view of the self as a precursor to postmodernist views, Dowd
(1996) argues that Goffman's view of the
self contradicted not only the conventional wisdom of a `true self' but also the
social psychological notions that the self
is stabilized either through cognitive
balancing or the internalization of role
requirements (Dowd, 1996: 244). Dowd
argues that `any strong conception of
human agency or autonomy must be


reassessed in the wake of postmodernism's emergence' (Dowd, 1996: 256), and

he suggests that Goffman's work provides
material for such a reassessment.
Against this postmodern interpretation,
Schwalbe (1993) interprets Goffman as
demonstrating the reality of the self. Like
the existentialists who view the self
portrayed in Goffman's work as a
`stance-taking entity', Schwalbe argues
that the self is expressed in moments of
decision about what face to present in a
social encounter and in moments of resistance where we assert ourselves against
social expectations (Schwalbe, 1993: 337).
The reality of the self as a psychobiological process, the basic human need to
maintain the coherence of the self,
Schwalbe argues, is the basis of the interaction order (Schwalbe, 1993: 338).
Goffman as Cynic or Moralist?
Goffman has been criticized for holding
a cynical view of the self and social life,
particularly by the existentialist and
According to some interpretations,
Goffman's cynical depiction is a description of the life of the new middle class in
late modern American society. One of the
rst to draw connections between
Goffman's work and its social-historical
context, Gouldner (1970) argues that
Goffman's dramaturgy `marks the transition from an older economy centred on
production to a new one centred on
mass marketing and promotion, including
the marketing of the self' (1970: 381).
Goffman's sociology, he argues, expresses
the experience of the educated middle
class, a class that lives in a world in
which `utility and morality are less and
less viable' and in which `getting ahead'
depends less on talents and skills and
more on the manipulation of impressions
(Gouldner, 1970: 387). A couple of variations on a similar theme include Young
(1971) and Gonos (1980). Young agrees
with the connections Gouldner makes,
but sees Goffman's work as an indictment
of the 'inauthentic self' and of the social


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

and institutional factors that create it

(Young, 1971: 278). Gonos (1980) takes
issue with Gouldner's view of Goffman's
work as a sociology of the new middle
class, and rather considers it a critique of
the values of this class from the perspective of the 'old middle class'. He points
out that Goffman's sociology showed the
necessity of impression management, that
the requirement of 'dramatising one's
work' is built into the structure of unproductive labour (Gonos, 1980: 145).
However, he argues that Goffman's sociology depicts the new middle class but
does not resonate with their conceptions
of themselves as authentic beings (1980:
154). On the contrary, he argues,
Goffman's sociology takes the perspective
of the 'underlife' gures who have a `keen
realistic understanding of the new corporatism' and who understand the relationship between `what is outwardly
communicated and the reality of the
game' (1980: 151).
In contrast to the cynical interpretation
and/or the interpretation of Goffman as
an unacknowledged analyst of the life of
a specic social class at a specic point in
history, other social theorists see in
Goffman's work an analysis of the interactional processes whereby humans, in all
times and places, build social and moral
order (Collins, 1980, 1988; Giddens, 1988;
Hall, 1977). Collins (1980) believes that
Goffman's core contribution is his analysis
of the way that interactional rituals
directed towards the self facilitate moral
order among members of a social group
(Collins, 1980: 467). According to
Giddens, Goffman's sociology is an analysis of a `highly moralized world of social
relationships. . . . Trust and tact are more
fundamental and binding features of
social interaction than is the cynical
manipulation of appearances' (Giddens,
1988: 113). Hall (1977) argues that
Goffman's portrayal of human actors
and social life is `less of a competitive
set of liars, and much more of a rather
altruistic mutual aid society helping each
other over difcult moments' (Hall, 1977:
539). Like Collins, Hall (1977) views

Goffman's work as a continuation of the

Durkheimian tradition, going beyond
Durkheim in recognizing how important
for the ordering and integration of society
are the interaction rituals that afrm the
sacred quality of the individual (Hall,
1977: 540).
While Goffman does emphasize moral
obligations as a basis of social order, the
cynical interpretation understandably
derives from his view that actors are
more concerned with putting on a show
of morality than they are with living up to
moral standards themselves (Collins,
1980; Bovone, 1993). As Goffman puts it
in an often-quoted passage: `The individuals who are performers dwell more
than we might think in a moral world.
But, qua performers, individuals are
concerned not with the moral issue of
realizing these standards, but with the
amoral issue of engineering a convincing
impression that these standards are being
realized' ([1956] 1959: 251). But it is not
because they are `sinister manipulators',
as some critics have argued, that actors
manipulate appearances to convey their
morality. Rather, management of appearance is itself a moral obligation. As
Goffman says: `. . . the very obligation
and protability of appearing always
in a steady light, of being a socialized
character, forces one to be the sort of person who is practiced in the ways of the
stage' ([1956] 1959: 251). Unlike Parsons,
Collins (1980) points out, Goffman `does
not nd social order to be founded on
internalization of moral obligations; the
obligations, rather, come because of the
way we encounter pressures from each
other in specic situations to help each
other construct a consistent denition of
reality' (Collins, 1980: 182).
Goffman as Conservative Functionalist or
Social Critic?
Finally, Goffman has been viewed as a
functionalist and a social critic. The interpretation of Goffman as a functionalist
derives from Goffman's fundamental concern with the interactional mechanisms by

Erving Goffman

which social order is maintained. Taking

Goffman at his word, the functionalist
interpretation is, as Collins (1988) has
argued, probably the more accurate of
the two interpretations. Goffman stated
that he regarded himself as a functionalist
and as an objective analyst and not a critic
of the social world. Yet several interpreters have viewed Goffman as an implicit social critic, an analyst of the
interaction dynamics that perpetuate
social hierarchies and a critic of the structures that dehumanize all but the most
privileged of social actors (Rogers, 1980;
Gamson, 1985; Branaman, 1997). While
perhaps not an interpretation Goffman
intended, there is nonetheless an abundance of material in Goffman's work that
is amenable to a reading of him as a social
critic. A central theme in The Presentation
of Self and Asylums is that the self depends
on a variety of props (e.g. territories of the
self, team-mate support) to maintain
human dignity, and that access to these
props is unequally distributed according
to social rank (Goffman, 1971). While
Interaction Ritual (1967) can be read as a
functionalist analysis of the interactional
maintenance of social order, it can also
be read as a critical analysis of the way
that interactional norms conserve existing
social orders and hierarchies independently of their merits. His statement in
Stigma (1963b: 128) that `there is only one
completely unblushing male in America'
can similarly be read as an indictment of
the exclusiveness of the social requisites of
full-edged humanity (Branaman, 1997).
In addition to the view of Goffman as a
critical analyst of the interactional
dynamics of inequality, Goffman's work
has also been viewed as an analysis of
the self's resistance to mortifying social
constraints (Friedson, 1983; Creelan,
1984; Loand, 1980) and of the potential
for the interaction order to subvert larger
social structures (Rawls, 1984).
Who or what is Goffman really? Symbolic
interactionist or structuralist, existentialist


or postmodernist, cynic or moralist, functionalist or social critic? Goffman is amenable to such a variety of interpretations,
I would argue, because he imports no
clear-cut meta-theoretical, moral, or political agenda into his writings. As he claims,
he is an observer and analyst of social life
not a meta-theoretician, moralist, or
politician. Yet, because his subject matter
is the nature of the self and social interaction and the morality and politics of
everyday social life, he draws the attention of meta-theorists, moralists, and politicians. My own interpretation is that each
of the major interpretations capture an
important piece of Goffman, and that
one of Goffman's most important contributions is to break down the dichotomies
implicit in these seemingly competing
Clearly, Goffman's analytical focus is on
everyday social interaction, and it goes
without saying that he thinks that what
goes on here has signicant implications
for the larger social order. At the same
time, his work illustrates that the
dynamics of social interaction are powerfully constrained by social structures that
Compatible with existentialist readings,
there is in Goffman's writings a depiction
of a moral and emotional core to the self
that struggles to maintain dignity and to
avoid dehumanization. Yet, as the postmodern interpreters say, the self is not a
stable inner reality but rather a precarious
accomplishment of social life. The view of
Goffman as a cynic is warranted by his
exposure of the dramatic techniques and
the seemingly manipulative practices that
people use in social life to sustain desired
denitions of self and social reality.
Goffman certainly offends readers who
take themselves and their realities too seriously and are unwilling to admit their
dependence on dramatic props and social
support. At the same time, the major aim
of such practices in Goffman's view is to
foster dignity, morality, and trust.
Certainly, Goffman's primary focus on
the (interactional) ritual basis of social
order places him in the Durkheimian


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

tradition and warrants viewing him as a

functionalist of sorts. At the same time, his
dissection of the conservative nature of
interactional norms, of the divergence
between social placement and merit, of
the exclusiveness and arbitrariness of the
standards of `normality', and his analysis
of the unequal distribution of the props
and social support necessary to generate
positive regard in social life certainly provides material for social critics.
Even though Goffman did not allow
himself to be pinned down into any theoretical school, it could be argued that the
diversity of interpretations attest to what
may be his greatest contribution his
ability to describe the social world in
such a way as to invite the application of
larger social theoretical questions to the
everyday world of social interaction.


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Peter Berger



orn in Vienna in 1929, Peter

Ludwig Berger has lived in the
United States since 1946. After
completing his BA in philosophy at
Wagner College, he went on to take his
MA and PhD in sociology at the New
School for Social Research. From 1954
to 1955 he was a lecturer at the
University of Georgia. He was an associate professor in 1963 and then Professor of
Sociology in 1966 in the Graduate Faculty
of the New School for Social Research. An
editor of the quarterly Social Research and
president of the Society for the Scientic
Study of Religion, he is University
Professor and Director of the Institute for
the Study of Economic Culture at Boston
Peter Berger has made a number of
important and inuential contributions
to various branches of twentieth-century
sociology. He has, for example, written
one of the most elegant and witty
introductions to sociology in his
Invitation to Sociology (1963). The notion
of sociology as a vocation was further
explored with Hansfried Kellner in
Sociology Reinterpreted (1981). He has

made decisive contributions to the sociology of religion in The Noise of Solemn

Assemblies (1961a), The Precarious Vision
(1961b), The Sacred Canopy (1967; published in England as The Social Reality of
Religion in 1969) and The Heretical
Imperative (1979). He has made controversial contributions to the study of the
family in The War Over the Family (Berger
and Berger, 1983). Throughout his career
he has been a close student of modernity
and modernization processes, which he
has considered with Brigitte Berger and
Hansfried Kellner in The Homeless Mind
(1973), Pyramids of Sacrice (1975), Facing
up to Modernity (1977) and The Capitalist
Revolution (1987). More recently his work
has addressed issues relating to human
rights and political participation in To
Empower People (Berger and Neuhaus,
1977) and Movement and Revolution
(Berger and Neuhaus, 1970). Finally, he
has addressed the humanistic and emancipatory aspects of humour in Redeeming
Laughter (1997).
Although he has covered a wide range
of institutions in his sociological research,
his perspective is remarkably consistent
and its central focus has been the sociology of knowledge. In this discussion of
Berger, it should be recognized that his


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

work is closley connected with the sociology of Thomas Luckmann with whom he
wrote his most inuential and important
study, namely The Social Construction of
Reality (Berger and Luckmann, 1966).
Although this prole is exclusively about
Berger, it is in reality difcult to identify
discretely the separate contributions of
Berger and Luckmann. Both sociologists
have signicantly developed the sociology of knowledge and the sociology of
religion, where for instance Luckmann's
The Invisible Religion (1967) has been
highly regarded.
This discussion of Berger's general sociology demonstrates that he has had a major
inuence over twentieth-century sociology in both Europe and North America.
It is surprising, therefore, that, apart
from specic studies of his sociology of
knowledge (Abercrombie, 1980), his
sociology of religion (Milbank, 1990), and
his contribution to cultural analysis
(Wuthnow et al., 1984), there have not
been more comprehensive and critical
evaluations of his work as a whole
(Ainlay and Hunter, 1986).
Sociology of Knowledge: Meaning and
Berger's sociology of knowledge is overtly
and self-consciously based on the traditions of classical sociology, especially
Karl Marx, Max Weber, and Emile
Durkheim. This classical tradition is seen
through the framework of European phenomenology. The work of Alfred Schutz
has, for example, been important in
understanding the everyday world for
both Berger and Luckmann (Thomason,
1982: 2961). However, the principal interpretative claim of this prole is that
Berger's general sociology has been dominated by the philosophical anthropology
of Arnold Gehlen. To achieve clarity in our
understanding of Berger's sociology, we

need to study his introduction to

Gehlen's Man in the Age of Technology
(Gehlen, 1980). Berger has been completely explicit about the importance of
Gehlen's philosophical anthropology in
the development of his own work
(Berger and Kellner, 1965). In various
interpretations of Berger's sociology of
knowledge (Ainlay and Hunter, 1986) his
dependence on Gehlen has been either
ignored or neglected. In particular,
Gehlen's conservatism with respect to
the role of institutionalization was carried
over into Berger's work; it is the tension
between the conservative impulse of
Gehlen and the radical agenda of the
early (Mannheimian) sociology of knowledge that makes Berger's sociology both
interesting and problematic. Berger's
sociology, especially in the Invitation to
Sociology, has a critical dimension that
deconstructs everyday reality by uncovering its taken-for-granted assumptions.
This humanistic sociology promises to
expose the disguises that cloak our social
worlds (O'Neill, 1972: 17), but paradoxically he also demonstrates that we need
these disguises to make our world orderly.
In general terms Gehlen argued, following Nietzsche, that human beings are not
yet nished animals. By this notion,
Gehlen meant that human beings are biologically ill equipped to deal with the
world into which they are involuntarily
inserted; they have no nite instinctual
basis that is specic to a given environment, and depend upon a long period of
socialization in order to adapt themselves
to the world. Gehlen argued that in order
to cope with this world openness, human
beings have to create a cultural world to
replace or to supplement their instinctual
world. It is this ontological incompleteness that provides an anthropological explanation for the origins of human
social instititutions. Berger and Luckmann
adopted this position to argue that, since
human beings are biologically underdeveloped, they have to construct a social
canopy around themselves in order to
complete or supplement their biology.
This argument by extension suggested

Peter Berger

that human societies need to ensure the

stability of their cultural world in order
to protect individuals from the threat of
anomie. It is interesting therefore that
one of the most important contributions
to the debate about social constructionism
was in fact based upon a foundationalist
ontology. This theoretical combination
may explain why the reception of Berger
and Luckmann's approach was characterized by a profound ambiguity. Ontological
foundationalism often appeared to point
to a rather conservative theory of institutions, while the social constructionist
position in the sociology of knowledge
implied a thorough criticism of the takenfor-granted nature of social institutions.
The core of Gehlen's work is a theory of
institutions. Human beings are characterized by their `instinctual deprivation' and
therefore humans do not have a stable
structure within which to operate.
Humans are dened by their `world openness' because they are not equipped
instinctively for a specic environment,
and as a result they have to build or construct their own environment, a construction that requires the building of
institutions. Social institutions are the
bridges between humans and their physical environment and it is through these
institutions that human life becomes
coherent, meaningful, and continuous. In
lling the gap created by instinctual
deprivation, institutions provide humans
with relief from the tensions generated by
undirected instinctual drives. Over time,
these institutions are taken for granted
and become part of the background of
social action. The foreground is occupied
by reexive, practical, and conscious
activities. With modernization, there is a
process of deinstitutionalization with
the result that the background becomes
less reliable, more open to negotiation,
culturally thinner and increasingly an
object of reection. Accordingly the foreground expands, and life is seen to be
risky and reexive. The objective and
sacred institutions of the past recede,
and modern life becomes subjective, contingent, and uncertain. In fact we live in a


world of secondary or quasi-institutions.

There are profound psychological consequences associated with these changes.
Archaic human beings had character,
that is, a rm and denite psychological
structure that corresponded with the reliable background institutions. In modern
societies, people have personalities that
are uid and exible, like the institutions
in which they live. The existential pressures on human beings are very profound
and to some extent contemporary people
are confronted with the uncertainties of a
`homeless mind' (Berger et al., 1973).
Berger and Luckmann's sociologies of
knowledge and religion can be interpreted
as applications of Gehlenic principles to
specic elds of sociological thinking
and to specic domains of modern society.
Berger's reections on identity (Berger,
1966), marriage (Berger and Kellner,
1964), and honour (Berger, 1970) have a
characteristic line of argumentation.
Institutions that we take for granted and
regard as natural are shown to be socially
constructed and precarious. We become
disillusioned with these `social facts',
because we can see that they are human
products. However, Berger then shows
that, while they are constructed, they are
socially necessary, and indeed collective
life would be intolerable without them.
Indeed, the implication of Berger's deconstructive critique is to suggest by implication that we would be wise to discard
our sociological awareness that identity,
marriage, and honour are socially constructed, because their legitimacy and
effectiveness depend on their taken-forgranted facticity.
Having briey discussed Gehlen's
theory of institutions, we can now turn
more directly to Berger's account of
the construction of knowledge. Berger
approaches the question of knowledge in
society through a dialectical method that
species three `moments' in the construction and production of knowledge: externalization, objectivation, and internalization. The rst concept is closely related
to Marx's account of `praxis' in the Paris
Manuscripts where the human world is


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

built by human beings in terms of ceasless

activity (or `labour' as Marx calls it).
Objectivation is the process by which the
humanly created world comes to have an
objective reality of its own as it confronts
its makers. Finally, this external world is
reappropriated by human beings as they
transform this external and objective
world back into a subjective consciousness. This whole process is parallel to the
early discussion of religion in the critical
philosophy of Feuerbach, Engels, and
Marx (Turner, 1991), The gods and spiritual beings that populate the heavenly
world are in fact constructs or projections
of the human world, but often in an
inverted form, whereby the powers
of human beings are transferred and elevated to the world of the gods. Religion is
both a form of inverted consciousness and
an alienation of human powers. For Marx,
critical criticism was the rst line of attack
on this fantastic world. For Berger, reication is ironically necessary for social order.
Contemporary sociological theories of
knowledge occupy positions on a philosophical continuum between foundationalism and constructionism. For example,
radical constructionism denies that there
are given or xed ontological foundations
and asserts that knowledge of social
reality is socially constructed by the
languages we have available to us. By contrast, positivism asserts the existence of
remaining hostile to the proposition that
reality is constructed through categories
of understanding and perception. In contemporary social theory, the most commonly held position is that of radical
constructionism. This radical tradition
has been signicantly inuenced by a
variety of sources: pragmatism, the social
constructionism of Michel Foucault, and
the postmodern relativism of Richard
Rorty. The interesting dimension of
Berger's relativism is that it combines
foundationalism with constructionism.
Human beings have to construct the
world, because their biology does not
provide them with specic instincts.
Institutions replace instincts through

socialization and internalization. Berger's

version of social constructionism has
become unfashionable, because it is not
easily reconciled with the radical deconstruction of sexual categories by feminism
or with the attack on racialized identities
by decolonization theory or with the rejection of determinate homosexual identities
by queer theory. In short, popular forms of
social constructionism are basically antiessentialist, whereas Berger's sociology
is rooted in a foundationalist epistemology that recognizes the need for social
order and cultural stability if the world
is to have any meaning. Because Berger
deconstructs identity from an interpretation of the essential biological characteristics of human beings (namely their
instinctual incompleteness), one could
imagine that Berger could be categorized
as an essentialist. My point is not necessarily to criticize essentialism, but to note
that constructionism and essentialism are
not typically combined.
This foundationalist epistemology in
the work of Berger and Luckmann should
help us to identify the political nature of
constructionist theories. One could argue
historically that radical social constructionism has emerged for the very reasons
outlined by Gehlen, namely that our background assumptions can no longer be
taken for granted, and as a result they
are in the foreground, where their legitimacy is constantly challenged. The world
has become postmodern, because there is
scepticism about the legitimacy of our
grand narratives. In the social theory of
Richard Rorty (1989: 73), there are no
`nal vocabularies' in a postmodern
world, because there are no secure, objective, background assumptions. To return
to the issue of the relationships between
sex, gender, and sexuality, the notion that
sexual positions are socially constructed
rather than biologically given appears
in social and political contexts, wherein
basic categories of behaviour have been
challenged and questioned. It is because
we cannot rely on our background institutions and characters that sexual identity
is seen to be historically and socially

Peter Berger

contingent. Sexuality is no longer a regular aspect of character; it is a negotiated

feature of personality.

Religion and Relativism

Berger's work has been inuential, partly
because it has been challenging. His introduction to sociology in Invitation to
Sociology presents a `humanistic perspective' of sociology, the aim of which is to
reconcile humanism with a sociological
perspective on how institutions shape
social life. In fact, as we have seen, his
view of the relationship between agency
and structure is dialectical. This theme is
expressed through the contrast between
`man in society' and `society in man'.
Individuals create meaning in order to
shape the world they inhabit; these meanings become institutionalized over time;
and in turn these institutions become
social structures that causally determine
social life. The classic illustration in
Invitation to Sociology is the story of the
young couple in the moonlight in a process of courtship. At some stage the young
man in the story is confronted with the
imperative: Marry! Marry! Marry! This
imperative is not an instinct that the
young man shares with animals. Berger
argues that `marriage is not an instinct
but an institution. Yet the way it leads
behaviour into predetermined channels
is very similar to what the instincts do
where they hold sway' (Berger, 1963:
105). Berger's sociology of knowledge is
complex, because it is both a radical
view of the possibilities of deconstruction
and a counsel of conservatism that not too
much can be transformed within the institutional arrangements of society. We can
deconstruct the imperatives of marriage
and recognize that what masquerades as
an inevitable fact about human arrangements is precisely human made, not
God-given. However, the imperative is
necessary if human beings are to get on
with the disciplines and routines that
make life possible and tolerable. In short,
marry or else.


The dialectic of meaning and structure

is intended to recognize both human
agency and objective constraints, and yet
the general mood of Berger's sociology is
melancholic (Lepenies, 1992). Human
beings renounce their capacity for action
in the interests of securing a meaningful
social structure. As Berger and Luckmann
argue in The Social Construction of Reality,
human actors prefer reication to anomie,
because the former offers comfort through
amnesia. As Berger argues in The Sacred
Canopy, human beings require the security
of their plausibility structures to be maintained, if their world is to have any sense
of legitimacy. We need the traumatic disappointments of our lives to be explained
and justied by theodicy. I have argued in
this prole that this renunciation is pregured in the work of Gehlen, upon
whose philosophical anthropology the
Bergerian life-world is constructed. The
trend of these arguments about the
necessity of order to secure meaning is
necessarily conservative, but to recognize
this outcome is simply an interpretation
rather than a value judgment. In the
development of Berger's understanding
of man as a gure of discomfort, Helmut
Schelsky's question (`Can continuous
questioning and reection be fully institutionalised?') proved especially inuential
in Berger's conservative sociology of
knowledge (Schelsky, 1965). Schelsky's
conclusion was that a process of continuous reexivity was not possible if enduring social relationship were to survive;
Berger's dialectical sociology of order
and meaningfulness contributed further
support to the melancholic view that the
human consciousness could not tolerate
such a burden a conclusion that raises
interesting questions for the somewhat
optimistic views on `detraditionalization'
and `reexive modernization' of Ulrich
Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash
(1994). The burden of the homeless mind
cannot be easily endured.
The implications of this melancholic
sociology of knowledge appear to be
highly relativistic. The social world produces a range of systems of knowledge


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

and meaning in response to the need for a

sacred canopy. These social realities are all
valid insofar as they satisfy the necessities
of meaning and protect the individual
from despair. It is difcult then to make
value judgments across cultures, given
their specicity. The problem of relativism
has been a specic issue for Berger, especially in his sociology of religion, and he is
perfectly aware of the intellectual damage
the sociology of knowledge can cause for
Christian theology. For example, he rejects
one solution to relativism that has been
developed in Christian theology between
`profane history' and `sacred history'.
While the former charts the secular history of the church over time, salvational
history is the record of divine intervention
in the world. Sacred history is a record of
human faith; profane history, a narrative
of the church in the world. Berger rejects
this explanation as meaningless on the
grounds that `faith' is just another manifestation of `religion' (Berger, 1969a: 51).
There are no neat theological answers to
the relativistic problems raised by history
and sociology.
Berger's sociology of religion has to
confront a basic and difcult problem.
The problem of a meaningful order is
solved in Berger's sociology of knowledge
by claiming that religion is a necessary
condition of social existence. Without a
sacred canopy, social life would be impossible. But would any sacred canopy
(religion) do? His position reminds one
of the arguments embraced by Leo
Strauss, for whom liberal and secular
society had led to nihilism and meaninglessness. A vibrant social order requires
a social world that is legitimized by
religion, and that is also hierarchical and
unequal. Strauss believed that almost any
religion would be appropriate to give
society coherence and cohesiveness.
Religion is a noble lie, because, while its
beliefs are not rational, it has a necessary
function in society. Religion is fundamental to the deception that is required for
devotion and loyalty to the state. The
work of philosophers must be secretive,
because their ideas can never be shared

by the masses (Strauss, 1952). Berger is

certainly not a conservative in the tradition of Strauss, but his sociology cannot
easily escape from the conclusion that
people need a sacred canopy, because
a deinstitutionalized social existence,
based on continuous reexivity, would
be a psychological nightmare or a homeless mind. His sociology struggles with
a dialectic of critical reection and anthropological nostalgia.
Such a negative position towards values
in a pluralistic world is troublesome,
as Berger recognizes. Although Berger
cannot present a general answer to the
relativistic difculties created by the
sociology of knowledge, he attempts to
sketch out the conditions for a response
in A Rumor of Angels. First, theology can
perhaps start more productively with
anthropology than with sociology, since
the anthropological tradition is not unlike
theology it is an attempt to spell out the
human condition in all its messy detail.
An anthropology of man Berger's language follows Gehlen's by employing
`man' as a generic term for `humanity'
can produce what he calls an `indicative
faith', that is a vision of man's anthropological condition that is derived from
experience rather than deductively from
abstract principles. Secondly, he argues
that through this methodology we can
inductively identify some signs of transcendence in the everyday world. Berger
identies ve arguments (from order,
play, hope, damnation, and humour).
These arguments point to a realm of
experience and value that stand beyond
or outside the everyday. Let us take the
argument from damnation. Some acts
and events in history are thought to go
beyond the realm of ordinary human
experience. Events like the Holocaust
and the trial of Eichmann appear to challenge the adequacy of our routine sense of
justice. Such events `cry out to heaven.
These deeds are not only an outrage to
our moral sense, they seem to violate a
fundamental awareness of the constitution of our humanity' (Berger, 1969b: 82).
This sense of human outrage and moral

Peter Berger

puzzlement is also indicative of the limitations of relativism. To argue that

Eichmann was a social product of his
time and place may be sociologically
correct, but it is hardly appropriate or
convincing. Because we have no means
of punishment appropriate to people convicted of terrible war crimes, we experience a need for a higher order of values
and justice. We feel compelled to describe
gross or monstrous behaviour within a
paradigm that allows for the existence
of evil. Berger treats these situations as
indications of the possibility of transcendence in the everyday world. A similar
line of argument has been developed by
Berger in Redeeming Laughter (1997).
Humour depends for its effects on a
sense of incongruity; laughter as a result
can take us out of our situation, indeed
out of ourselves. Humour is bound up
with the experience of ecstasy in everyday
life, and ecstasy (ek-stasis) is the experience of being outside or beside ourselves.
These experiences provide a window on
a world that is beyond or outside relativization, an overview of a larger whole. In
a world of evil, there is always the possibility of the rumour of angels.
Such an alternative to relativism is
obviously appealing and Berger writes
about this need (for transcendence) and
about the possibilities of ecstasy with conviction and charm. The argument for the
importance of humanistic values to give
meaning to the problems of modernity is
certainly compelling. One difculty with
this argument is that in modern society
the media often appear to stand between
us (as an audience) and the possibility of
experiences of reality. In a literal sense, the
media are those cultural institutions that
process and co-ordinate cultural messages
from our environment. It is only in retrospect that the Holocaust has assumed a
denite quality of evil, because its signicance has been shaped by half a century of
debate. The slaughter of gypsies and other
communities in the same period has not
yet been mediated by the global media
to such an extent. If we turn to the collapse
of socialist Yugoslavia and the ethnic


cleansing of Serbia, we are retrospectively

conscious of the fact that the media constructed the pillage of Kosovo as unambiguously a case of evil. However, as the
response of NATO unfolded, it became
clear that the situation on the ground
was far more complex. The revenge
attacks of the Kosovo Liberation Army
on civilian Serbs revealed a long history
of interethnic violence. Furthermore, had
NATO bombing destroyed more Kosovan
Albanians than Serb police attacks? Had
NATO bombing inicted any damage on
the Serbian army? Because it is difcult
to allocate blame to either Serbs or
Albanians, it became easier to regard
Slobodan Milosevic as the evil gure
behind the ethnic cleansing. In this case,
I am less concerned to make an empirical
judgment about Kosovo and more concerned to use this event as an illustration
of how the media construct and simulate
reality. In a postmodern world of global
information, it is difcult to act spontaneously or to think naively towards events
in our social world, because they have
been heavily mediated by the media. In
this sense, we live in a postemotional
world, where our emotive response to
politics is constructed for us (Mestrovic,
1997). The rumour of angels becomes
more distant and polyphonic as the
media noise obscures immediate and
heartfelt emotional responses by the cultural construction of everyday life.
The problem of relativism in social
science is a well-established problem.
There is an important argument that
ironically it had its origins in the biblical
criticism of Protestant theology in the
early nineteenth century. The issue of the
historical relativism of the biblical texts
became a general problem of historicism
that inuenced Weber and the origins of
sociology (Antoni, 1998). This legacy was
further compounded by anthropological
relativism when the eldwork discoveries
of anthropologists in Australia, New
Guinea, south-eastern Asia, and the
Pacic began to have a distinct impact
on philosophy, theology, and literature in
mid-century. These traditional problems


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

of relativism have now taken a new direction under the impact of postmodernism.
To the traditional arguments of anthropological relativism, postmodern theory
has recognized the complex processes by
which `reality' is constructed by a consumer materialism that is dominated by
information technologies, communication
systems, and global cultures. With what
Fredric Jameson calls the cultural logic
age of late capitalism, we are living in `a
period in which, with the extinction of the
sacred and the ``spiritual'', the deep
underlying materiality of all things has
nally risen dripping and convulsive
into the light of day' (Jameson, 1991: 67).
`Primitive cultures' are incorporated into
the global world of tourism as objects of
anthropological experience, and cannibalism is elaborated and reinvented as
an exotic component of tourism in Fiji.
The challenge to Berger's `rumour of
angels' is to what extent naive anthropological experiences are possible upon
which an indicative faith could be successfully created and preserved. In short, the
postmodern challenge to the plausibility
structures of religion may be more profound than traditional forms of relativism.
One can argue that Berger's notion of relativism has been more concerned with the
rst two stages of the debate what we
might call textual relativism and anthropological relativism and less engaged
with postmodern relativism which takes
account of the mediation of reality by the
cultural media.
Berger's social theory has achieved a
remarkable coherence in direction and
a considerable range of applications as a
comprehensive approach to sociology.
First, the basis of his humanistic sociology
has been his approach to the sociology of
knowledge. Whereas the tradition of
Mannheim had been to examine articulate
and literate systems of belief such as conservatism or Christianity, Berger has

examined the constitution and maintenance of everyday understanding of the

mundane world. Berger has also departed
from the Marxist and Frankfurt traditions,
because he makes no clear distinction
between knowledge and ideology. He
has not been concerned with the truth or
falsity of beliefs, but only with their role in
constructing and sustaining a meaningful
world. Berger's notions of legitimacy and
plausibility have not been grounded in a
critical notion of rationality or truth,
because his principal question is: what
passes for `knowledge' in social interaction?
Secondly, we should note Berger's
interest in the centrality of religious
institutions to human society. Generally
speaking, from Weber's death in 1920 to
the publication of The Sacred Canopy in
1967, the sociology of religion had become
marginal to mainstream sociology, and
there had been no attempt to provide a
general or synthetic contribution to the
sociological study of religious institutions.
Berger brought religious phenomena back
to the centre of sociological attention by
showing how religion was fundamental
to the processes of constructing symbolic
worlds. In the 1950s and 1960s, industrialization and modernization theories paid
little attention to religion, which was seen
to be largely irrelevant to the problems of
society. Secularization was seen to be an
inevitable consequence of modernization.
The principal exception to this neglect of
religion was to be found in the work of
Talcott Parsons who saw American individualism and activism as a fullment rather
than a negation of Christianity. Pluralism
and activism in American values were an
institutionalization of Protestant denominationalism (Robertson and Turner, 1991).
Although the roots of the sociology of
religion in Parsons and Berger were very
different, their approach to religious institutions represented a synthesis of Weber
and Durkheim (Milbank, 1990: 106). Both
sociologists have challenged conventional
perspectives on secularization by suggesting that all forms of institutionalization
have a sacred dimension.

Peter Berger


Thirdly, it is possible to suggest therefore that Berger brought about a (re)integration of sociology and theology. From
the perspective of the late twentieth century, it is difcult to realize that classical
sociology was grounded in a debate with,
and adaptations from, theology. Classical
sociology was critically concerned with
the possible demise of Christianity in the
face of capitalist industrialization. Weber's
views on charisma, the Protestant ethic,
and social change were profoundly inuenced by the theologian and historian
Ernst Troeltsch (Drescher, 1992). Emile
Durkheim's understanding on the ritualistic roots of social solidarity would not
have developed without the contributions
of the Protestant theologian William
Robertson Smith (Turner, 1997). Berger's
analysis of transcendence in everyday
life represents an effort to understand
the roots of religious experience through
the lens of the sociology of knowledge.
Finally, Berger's work is a synthesis of
sociology and theology in the sense that
he has been committed to understanding
the relevance of sociology to the human
condition and the dilemmas of modern
society. Within this synthesis of ethical
and sociological perspectives, the concept
of theodicy has played a central role.
Within theological discourse, it is concerned with the problem of explaining
the contradiction between the existence
of evil and the nature of divinity. If God
is all powerful and merciful, how can evil
exist? Berger has transformed this theological question into a powerful sociology of
knowledge that is concerned with how the
social world can be justied or legitimated. The discussion of plausibility
structures is one facet of this larger project, which is to understand how the social
world is made and how it appears as natural and comprehensible.

Berger, P.L. (1963) Invitation to Sociology. Garden City,

NY: Doubleday.
Berger, P.L. (1966) `Identity as a problem in the sociology of knowledge', European Journal of Sociology, 7
(1): 10515.
Berger, P.L. (1967) The Sacred Canopy. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday.
Berger, P.L. (1969a) The Social Reality of Religion.
London: Faber and Faber.
Berger, P.L. (1969b) A Rumor of Angels. New York:
Berger, P.L. (1970) `On the obsolescence of the concept of honour', European Journal of Sociology, 11:
Berger, P.L. (1979) The Heretical Imperative.
Contemporary Possibilities of Religious Afrmation.
Garden City, NY: Anchor Press.
Berger, P.L. (1980) 'Foreword', in Gehlen, A. Man in
an Age of Technology. New York: Columbia
University Press.
Berger, P.L. (1987) The Capitalist Revolution. Fifty
Propositions about Prosperty, Equality and Liberty.
Aldershot: Wildwood House.
Berger, P.L. (1997) Redeeming Laughter. The Comic
Dimension of Human Experience. Berlin and New
York: Walter de Gruyter.
Berger, P.L. (1975) Pyramids of Sacrice: Political Ethics
and Social Change. New York: Basic Books.
Berger, P.L. (1977) Facing up to Modernity Excursions in
Society, Politics and Religous. New York: Basic Books.
Berger, P.L. and Berger, B. (1983) The War Over the
Family: Capturing the Middle Ground. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday.
Berger, P.L., Berger, B. and Kellner, H. (1973) The
Homeless Mind. New York: Random House.
Berger, P.L. and Kellner, H. (1964) 'Marriage and the
construction of reality', Diogenes, 46: 121.
Berger, P.L. and Kellner, H. (1965) `Arnold Gehlen
and the theory of institutions', Social Research, 32
(1): 11013.
Berger, P.L. and Kellner, H. (1981) Sociology
Reinterpreted. Garden City, NY: Doubleday Books.
Berger, P.L. and Luckmann, T. (1966) The Social
Construction of Reality. A Treatise in the Sociology of
Knowledge. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Berger, P.L. and Neuhaus, R.J. (1970) Movement and
Revolution. Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Berger, P.L. and Neuhaus, R.J. (1977) To Empower
People. The Role of Mediating Structures in Public
Policy. Washington, DC: American Enterprise
Institute for Public Policy Research.



Berger, P.L. (1961a) The Noise of Solemn Assemblies.

Garden City, NY: Doubleday.
Berger, P.L. (1961b) The Precarious Vision. Garden City,
NY: Doubleday.

Abercrombie, N. (1980) Class, Structure and

Knowledge. Oxford: Basil Blackwell.
Ainlay, S.C. and Hunter, D.J. (1986) Making Sense of
Modern Times. Peter L. Berger and the Vision of


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Interpretative Sociology. London: Routledge and

Kegan Paul.
Antoni, C. (1998) From History to Sociology. London:
Beck, U., Giddens, A. and Lash, S. (1994) Reexive
Modernization. Politics, Tradition and Aesthetics in
the Modern Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Drescher, H-G. (1992) Ernst Troeltsch. His Life and
Work. London: SCM Press.
Gehlen, A. (1980) Man in the Age of Technology. New
York: Columbia University Press.
Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism or the Cultural Logic
of Late Capitalism. London: Verso.
Lepenies, W. (1992) Melancholy and Society.
Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Luckmann, T. (1967) The Invisible Religion, The
Transformation of Symbols in Industrial Society. New
York: Macmillan.
Mestrovic, S.G. (1997) Postemotional Society. London:
Milbank, J. (1990) Theology and Social Theory. Beyond
Secular Reason. Oxford: Blackwell.
O'Neill, J. (1972) Sociology as a Skin Trade. Essays
Towards a Reexive Sociology. London: Heinemann.

Robertson, R. and Turner, B.S. (eds) (1991)

Talcott Parsons, Theorist of Modernity. London:
Rorty, R. (1989) Contingency, Irony and Solidarity.
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Schelsky, H. (1965) `Ist die Dauerreexion institutionalisierbar? Zum Thema einer modernen
Religionssoziologie', in Auf der Suche nach
Wirklichkeit. Gesammelte Aufsatze. DusseldorfKoln: Eugen Diederichs Verlag.
Strauss, L. (1952) Persecution and the Art of Writing.
Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Thomason, B.C. (1982) Making Sense of Reication.
Alfred Schutz and Constructionist Theory. London:
Turner, B.S. (1991) Religion and Social Theory. London:
Turner, B.S. (1997) `Introduction: the study of
religion', in B.S. Turner (ed.) The Early Sociology
of Religion. London: Routledge/Thoemmes
Wuthnow, R. (1984) Cultural Analysis: the work of Peter
L. Berger, Mary Douglas, Michel Foucault, and Jurgen
Habermas. London: Routledge.

Michel Foucault

The key thing, as Nietzsche said, is that thinkers are always, so to speak, shooting arrows into the air, and other thinkers pick them up and shoot them in
another direction. That's what happens with Foucault.
(Gilles Deleuze)

ichel Foucault was born on 15

October 1926 in Poitiers,
France and died on 25 June
1984 from complications resulting from
AIDS. He is regarded as one of the most
important and popular thinkers of the
twentieth century. While his ascetic,
shaven-headed image has become an
icon of postmodern theory, Foucault
should most appropriately be remembered for his imaginative pursuit of
thought outside the given truths and
resigned scepticism of our time, and for
his distinctive accomplishments in four
areas. First, he mapped out the material
practices and power relations that underlie the rise of Western philosophy, history,
politics, and literary studies. Second, his
work has renewed professional elds
such as urban planning, medicine, criminology, mental health, education, managerial studies, architecture, public policy,

and social work. (Some examples amongst

many others are: Garland, 1997; McKinlay
and Starkey, 1998; Chambon et al., 1999).
Third, Foucault challenged the major
critical traditions, such as structuralism,
Marxism and humanism, and provided
vital critiques of their limitations. Finally,
Foucault became a public intellectual
who deed dominant culture through
his political afliations, lectures, interviews, and gay activism.
These accomplishments create a challenge for those seeking to chart his career,
as David Macey reveals in his 1993 biography, The Lives of Michel Foucault, and
in his depiction of Foucault's creative
juggling of his intellectual, political, and
public personae. Further complicating
the task is the fact that Foucault's prodigious writings display no unied
theoretical model or political orientation,
and no single text tidily represents his
scholarship. James Miller, another biographer, states that `Foucault left behind
no synoptic critique of society, no system


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

of ethics, no comprehensive theory of

power, not even (current impressions to
the contrary) a generally useful historical
method . . . What value, then, does his
work really have? What can it mean for
us? How should it be used?' (1993: 19).
Foucault, the product of a middle-class
family, revealed his enthusiasm for interdisciplinary scholarship from his earliest
university studies. He graduated from the
prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure
in Paris with licences in philosophy and
psychology in 1948 and 1949 respectively.
The heated intellectual atmosphere of the
Ecole Normale also reected the postwar
enthusiasm in France for ideas coming
from Marxism, structural linguistics, and
Hegelian phenomenology, and it was here
that Foucault met inuential contemporaries such as science historian Georges
Canguilhem and Marxist theorist Louis
Althusser. In 1951 Foucault received his
agregation in philosophy from the
Ecole Normale (a very demanding set of
examinations which he initially failed),
and in 1952 he completed a diploma
course in psychopathology. From 19525
he taught psychology in the philosophy
department at the university in the northern city of Lille. During this time he also
worked as a researcher and an `unofcial
intern' (Miller 1993: 63) at the Saint-Anne
Hospital in Paris, gaining valuable clinical
experience that would later gure in his
books on psychology, medicine, and asylums. Foucault wrote his rst book,
Maladie mentale et personnalite (Mental
Illness and Psychology) in 1954. (The
English translation by Alan Sheridan
appeared in 1976, based on the revised
French version in 1962 entitled Maladie
mentale et psychologie. While this text pregured Madness and Civilization, it was
also overshadowed by it and has been
largely ignored in the scholarly literature
on Foucault.) In the following ve years
he pursued a career combining teaching
and cultural diplomacy, taking up positions in Uppsala, Warsaw, and Hamburg.
These postings offered signicant intellectual opportunities, however. The library
at the university in Uppsala provided

him with the materials to write Folie et

deraison: histoire de la folie a l'age classique
(Madness and Civilization: A History of
Insanity in the Age of Reason), and his
work in Warsaw and Hamburg allowed
him to complete the text by 1960. In that
year Foucault submitted Folie et deraison
for his doctoral thesis in Paris, which
was passed and praised by Georges
Canguilhem (1995). From 1960 to 1966,
while Foucault commuted from Paris to
a teaching position at the University of
Clermont-Ferrand, his book on the history
of madness gained its rst round of
scholarly acclaim. It had all the markings
of what would later be recognized as
Foucault's brilliant style, ingenious
methodology, and tireless erudition, a
blend of talents rarely applied to such a
prosaic topic by a social theorist.
Folie et deraison is ostensibly about the
medicalization of madness during the
eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and
the development of the asylum and the
psy-sciences. But it is also a critique of
the Enlightenment's liberal traditions
and philosophies of reason, and as such
launches Foucault's wider project to lay
bare the ontological means by which
truth, knowledge and power have become
intertwined. A second international round
of acclaim followed the book's 1965 publication in English under the title Madness
and Civilization. Praise for the book was
accompanied, however, by criticisms
accusing Foucault of discourse determinism, shoddy historical research, and failure
to acknowledge the genuinely curative
functions of modern therapeutics. Such
criticisms would resurface throughout
Foucault's career, but this early round
was provoked unfairly by the truncated
1965 translation of the original that excised
important sections and references (see
Gordon, 1990; Still and Velody, 1992).
Despite the criticisms, Madness and
Civilization continued to expand its inuence. In the late 1960s inside France it was
linked to the social upheavals of 1968,
while outside of France it was embraced
by the highly politicized `antipsychiatry'
movement spearheaded by Thomas

Michel Foucault

Szasz, Ronald D. Laing, Ivan Illich, and

David Cooper. As Robert Castel points
out, Foucault's rst major work thus had
a dual importance: in the early 1960s it
emerged as a key contribution to the `epistemology of the human sciences' (Castel,
1990: 27); and in the late 1960s it became
an analytic tool for `political activism and
a generalized anti-repressive sensibility'
(Castel, 1990: 29).
Naissance de la clinique: une archeologie du
regard medical (1963), translated as The
Birth of the Clinic: An Archaeology of
Medical Perception (1973), marked two
developments in his career. First, it indicated his experimentation with (though
not adherence to) structuralism and semiology, through its focus on linguistic
systems of signication and spatialized
discourses of perception. In this, Foucault
was joining an intellectual vogue shared
by fellow French thinkers Claude LeviStrauss, Roland Barthes, Jacques Lacan,
and Louis Althusser. Second, The Birth of
the Clinic advanced `archaeology' as a
new historical methodology. Inuenced
by Gaston Bachelard and Georges
Canguilhem's ideas on historical discontinuity and critiques of progressivism
and presentism in the history of science
(see Gutting, 1989), `archaeology', as
Foucault applies it in The Birth of the
Clinic, is a way of rendering visible the
discursive strata embedded within modern formations of medical authority. On
the surface the book is about the changes
in medical practices in France from the
late eighteenth century to the early nineteenth century. Beneath its canonical trappings, Foucault reveals layered within
modern medicine the new linguistic, technological, epistemological and political
constituents of human life.
Foucault expanded his archaeological
approach in two subsequent texts, Les
Mots et les choses: une archeologie des sciences
humaines (The Order of Things: An
Archaeology of the Human Sciences) in 1966
Archaeology of Knowledge) in 1969. (During
this period Foucault also wrote a number


of books and essays on art, literature and

philosophy, such as Death and the Labyrinth:
The World of Raymond Roussel ([1963] 1986),
and on the work of George Bataille,
Maurice Blanchot, and Rene Margritte.
Since Foucault did not return to these
areas after the 1960s, nor have these
works been inuential in literary studies,
they are not considered part of his major
corpus. See Foucault, 1998 for some of
these writings.) In The Archaeology of
knowledge, Foucault sharpened his archaeological methodology and outlined the
formalities underlying the discursive formations in the human sciences he sought
to understand. But The Archaeology of
Knowledge has remained obscure for
many readers compared to The Order of
Things, which became a best-seller, with
wide popular as well as scholarly appeal.
In it, Foucault traces the discontinuities in
the human sciences from their emergence
in the Renaissance through the development of their core elds economics, biology and linguistics in the nineteenth
century. The book's controversial exploration of the `death' of the gure of `man' in
contemporary thought triggered a critical
reaction by Jean-Paul Sartre (1971),
amongst others, that was symptomatic of
the growing humanist and Marxist opposition to Foucault's ideas. Foucault was
away from France teaching in Tunisia
during the critical period between 1966
to 1968, however. Upon returning to
Paris, he distanced himself from his
popular image as a structuralist. `In
France, certain half-witted ``commentators'' persist in labelling me a ``structuralist''. I have been unable to get it into
their tiny minds that I have used none of
the methods, concepts, or key terms that
characterize structural analysis', wrote
Foucault in his Foreword to the English
edition of The Order of Things (1971: xiv).
Foucault's appointment as professor of
philosophy at the new experimental
University of Vincennes in 1968 marked
the different intellectual direction he was
to pursue during the 1970s. While
his radical character t well in the alternative interdisciplinary environment of


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Vincennes, he soon was elected to the preeminent College de France, to take up a

new Chair in the History of Systems of
Thought. He occupied this post for the
rest of his life. The College de France
requires its Chairs to conceive yearly
courses relevant to the theme of their
chairships. Foucault's course summaries
are fascinating chronicles of his initial
ventures into areas that would inspire
the latter half of his career: criminology,
sexuality, governmentality, and ethics
(see Foucault, 1997).
Between 1969 and 1975 Foucault
became politically involved with groups
such as the Prison Information Group in
France and travelled to Poland and Iran to
write about repression and revolution.
During these years Foucault wrote essays,
gave interviews and edited texts such as
the memoir of nineteenth-century murderer Pierre Riviere (Foucault, 1975).
While he produced no major texts, he
was working towards his next methodological breakthrough inspired by the ideas of
Friedrich Nietzsche, in particular his work
On The Genealogy of Morals. In an essay
entitled `Nietzsche, Genealogy, History'
([1971] 1977c), Foucault clearly outlines
the strengths of what he sees as a
Nietzschean genealogical method: a multidisciplinary technique for discovering the
contingent historical trends that underpin
contemporary discourses and practices of
power. `Genealogy is gray, meticulous, and
patiently documentary. It operates on a
eld of entangled and confused parchments' (1977c: 139), and thus opposes the
search for traditional origins and the erection of foundations in favour of disturbing
`what was previously considered immobile' and fragmenting `what was thought
unied' (1977c: 147). Ideally, the aim of
genealogy is to understand `the history of
the present' separate from the familiar historical narratives and political ideologies
which have represented the past. Prado
provides a clear introduction to
Foucault's `genealogical analytics' (1995).
Other writers have traced or contested
Foucault's connection to Nietzsche
(Mahon, 1992; Owen, 1996; Nilson, 1998).

Foucault's methodological turn to

genealogy, and to a new range of topical
interests, found expression in the dramatic
book that emerged after his publishing
hiatus, Surveiller et punir: naissance de la
prison (Discipline and Punish: The Birth of
the Prison) in 1975. Forcefully articulating
both the political and intellectual concerns
that preoccupied him in the preceding
seven years, the book set forth a genealogical revamping of the criminological history of the prison system. It also became
the most famous of Foucault's books
because it artfully recast modernity as a
`disciplinary society' shaped by the new
forms of power that followed the decline
of European sovereign regimes. Interest
in genealogical histories of the present
animated Foucault's subsequent series
on the history of sexuality: Histoire de la
sexualite I: La Volonte de savoir (The
History of Sexuality Volume I: An
Introduction) (1976); L'Usage des plaisirs
(The Use of Pleasure) (1984); Le Souci de soi
(The Care of the Self) (1984). Despite their
differences, these texts consistently
employ a Nietzschean deconstruction of
the lineages of the Western soul and the
abiding regimes of truth, ethics, and identity. The books also share a more comprehensible language than Foucault's earlier
works: thus they have become indispensable to any university course on crime,
sexuality, and related topics dealing with
regulation and social control.
In a touching irony Foucault's last days
in June 1984 were spent at the Salpetriere,
the famous hospital he frequently
excoriated in his work for its historical
role in establishing the `bio-power' of the
French government: lying in his bed at the
hospital, he was pleased to read the rst
reviews of his last books, volumes 2 and 3
of The History of Sexuality.
Much of the literature commenting on
Foucault's contributions to social theory
has sought to compartmentalize his work

Michel Foucault

in relation to (and sometimes as derivative

of) other theorists or schools of thought,
such as Marxism (Poster, 1984), critical
theory (Ransom, 1997), Durkheim studies
(Cladis, 1999), and the sociology of Max
Weber (Turner, 1992; Szakolczai, 1998),
the latter in particular because of Weber's
emphasis on bureaucratic expertise and
the disciplinary aesthetics of the government of the self. Further writings link
Foucault to Nietzsche, Jacques Derrida
(Boyne, 1990), Gilles Deleuze (Braidotti,
1991), Thomas Kuhn (Dreyfus &
Rabinow, 1983), Maurice Merleau-Ponty
(Crossley, 1994) and Jurgen Habermas
(Kelly, 1994; Ashenden & Owen, 1999).
Feminist critics have been particularly
important to this exercise (discussed
further below).
Foucault strove his last years to establish a unique theoretical standing for his
life's work independent of his commentators, however.
My objective . . . has been to create a history of the
different modes by which, in our culture, human
beings are made subjects. My work has dealt with
three modes of objectication which transform
human beings into subjects. The rst is the
modes of inquiry which try to give themselves
the status of sciences . . . In the second part of
my work, I have studied the objectivizing of
the subject in what I shall call `dividing practices'.
The subject is either divided inside himself or
divided from others. Finally, I have sought to
study . . . the way a human being turns him- or
herself into a subject. (Foucault, 1983a: 208)

Elsewhere Foucault repeats this tripartite

organization of his corpus (1983b: 237;
1985: 313; 1988b). Thus, we should follow
Foucault's own assessment of his work
to understand further the problems his
theoretical ideas made intelligible.
Rabinow's commentary (1984: 711) is
one that does indeed stay true to
Foucault's purpose by delineating his
work in terms of classication practices,
dividing practices, and self-subjectication
practices, and hence provides a useful
formulation. In addition, Foucault elaborated how this series of practices operated
most evidently across three elds of subjectivity: the body, the population and the


individual. By creating a history of the

modes by which `human beings are
made subjects', Foucault reconceptualized
modern politics as a subjectifying grid
of practices and elds. In so doing, he
added a vibrant critical dimension to contemporary social theory, as the following
discussion illustrates.
Practices of Subjectification
Classification practices
Throughout his writings, Foucault emphasized that the professional status of a
knowledge derives from the elds in
which it is deployed, rather than from the
authority of the professionals themselves.
Thus, he sharpened our understanding of
how knowledge-production in the human
sciences, such as psychiatry, medicine, sexology, and criminology, has transformed
people into types of subjects by classifying
them according to the dualistic logics that
pervade Western thinking: reason/unreason, normal/pathological, and living/
dying. For example, in The Order of Things
Foucault argues that economics constructed the producing subject accountable
to economic rules and laws; biology constructed the living subject governed
by biological laws of nature that condition
it as an organism; and linguistics constructed the speaking subject characterized by structures of signication. Economics, biology, and linguistics are linked
as well because their classication schemes
were grounded in the study of `man', the
denitive gure around which the makers
of modern knowledge shaped their discourses and justied their interventions
into all domains of human existence.
Dividing practices
In Foucault's work dividing practices are
political strategies that separate, normalize, and institutionalize populations for
the sake of social stability. In his texts
Madness and Civilization, The Birth of the
Clinic, and Discipline and Punish, Foucault
illustrates how modern European states
marked vagabond and supposedly


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

`unproductive' people as political problems, and regrouped them into the mad,
the poor, and the delinquent. This disciplinary ordering of society coincided
with the development of powerful institutions asylums, hospitals, prisons, and
schools. Most importantly, Foucault highlighted how dividing practices historically
drew their power from both mercantile
state agencies and the Enlightenment's
political philosophies of individual rights
and human freedom. For example, in
Discipline and Punish Foucault describes
how, since the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, regulatory techniques
based on examinations, training, recordkeeping, and surveillance were also connected to new corrective programmes
aimed at individual rehabilitation.
Hence, it was the ironic convergence of
disciplinarity with liberal humanism that
became the dening characteristic of what
Foucault calls the `birth of the prison' (the
subtitle of Discipline and Punish).
Self-subjectification practices
Self-subjectication practices constitute a
more elusive mode of subjectication
because, as Foucault explains, they entail
the deployment of technologies of the self:
`Techniques that permit individuals to
affect, by their own means, a certain number of operations on their own bodies,
their own souls, their own thoughts,
their own conduct, and this in a manner
so as to transform themselves, modify
themselves, and attain a certain state of
perfection, happiness, purity, supernatural
power' (Foucault and Sennett, 1982:
10). In The History of Sexuality, Foucault
identies the confession as the exemplary
technology of the self, one that originated
with Christianity and later featured in
modern medicine and psychiatry. Social
scientists, therapeutic experts, and associated moral engineers exercise technologies of the self in a variety of ways (see
Martin et al., 1988). In Foucault's work,
self-subjectication practices proliferate
in the domain of sexuality, however,
because the sexological sciences have

historically characterized sex as secretive,

hidden, and dangerous, thus obligating
subjects to speak about it in intensely
self-reexive terms. Consequently, these
sciences continue to enhance their own
expertise by forging sexual truth at the
core of human identity. This is why,
according to Foucault, our most longstanding ideas about the self should be
scrutinized in terms of the self-subjectifying practices that sustain them.
Fields of Subjectivity
The body
While Foucault is not alone in focusing on
the political rule of the body, he is unique
for detailing the multifarious ways in
which `bio-power' played a role in establishing modern regimes of power. Indeed,
Foucault's work on the body has encouraged an expansive sociology of the body
spanning several elds (e.g. Sawicki, 1991;
Jones and Porter, 1994; Terry and Urla,
1995). Discipline and Punish and The
History of Sexuality are the two key texts
in which Foucault develops his analysis of
the body as a eld of subjectivity. In the
former, he says that penal practices actually produce the `soul' of the delinquent
by disciplining the body and corporealizing prison environments. Hence, the
body's most intimate needs food,
space, exercise, sleep, sex, privacy, light,
and heat become the materials upon
which prison schedules, curfews, checkups, timetables, and micro-penalties are
enacted. The body-discipline developed
in prisons has parallels throughout the
broader disciplinary society. Indeed, the
success of modernity's dominion over
efcient bodies in industry, docile bodies
in prisons, and regimented bodies in
schools attests to Foucault's thesis that
the human body is a highly adaptable terminus for the circulation of power.
Similarly, in The History of Sexuality
Foucault depicts the frightening mastery
with which nineteenth-century experts
constructed a hierarchy of sexualized
bodies and segmented the population
into groups of normal, deviant, and

Michel Foucault

Victorian sexual discourse idealized a
particularly bourgeois male body, distinguished by its health and longevity,
endurance and productivity, and descent
and race. The bourgeois male body was
used then to mark as inferior the bodies
of women, lower classes, non-Western
peoples, and the elderly. For Foucault,
the connection between the individual
body and the social body, or population,
was thus vital to the formation of modern
The population
Foucault radically historicized the notion
of population by extracting it from traditional demographic conceptions and tracing its discursive and political origins to
the power/knowledge networks that
grew out of the Enlightenment's concerns
with health and wealth. Population
emerged as a eld of subjectivity where
administrative power over people became
exercised through the identication,
standardization, and regulation of public
behaviour and risks. For example, The
Birth of the Clinic examines how the
medical crises around urban hygiene and
epidemics in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries empowered a centralized
medical government to monitor the health
of the population and the social spaces of
its activities. In later studies Foucault
expands the medical focus and outlines
how the modern state enhanced its
power by intervening in the life of the
population, or what Foucault calls the
`bio-politics of the population' (1978).
Foucault's concept of bio-politics leads
to his overall view of politics, or governmentality, `the art of government' (1991:
90) and his essays on the genealogy of
liberal rule (1981, 1988a). Beginning in the
seventeenth century, Western administrations rationalized their management of
social problems with novel governmental
techniques such as statistics, surveys,
police, health regulations, and centralized
welfare. Nikolas Rose, in his inventive
case study of British social psychology,
explains that `with the entry of the popu-


lation into political thought, rule takes as

its object such phenomena as the numbers
of subjects, their ages, their longevity, their
sicknesses and types of death, their habits
and vices, their rates of reproduction'.
Hence `the birth and history of the knowledges of subjectivity and intersubjectivity
are intrinsically bound up with programmes which, in order to govern subjects, have found that they need to know
them' (Rose, 1990: 5).
The arguments of Foucault, Rose, and
others about governmentality and the
population-as-subject pose a fresh critical
slant on the politics of demographic
knowledge, and have led to an exciting
subeld of governmentality studies
(Burchell et al., 1991; Barry et al., 1996;
Dean, 1999; Rose, 1999). Such studies elaborate Foucault's perspective on the
governmentalization of power to critique
neoliberal regimes, insurential and riskmanagement programmes, and the utilization of data-technology and market rationalities
governmentality literature also emphasizes how personal conduct, freedom,
choice, and responsibility are regured as
political resources and enfolded into the
fabric of `the social' (see Petersen &
Bunton, 1997; Cruikshank, 1999). In this
sense Mitchell Dean's denition is apposite: Governmentality `denes a novel
thought-space across the domains of ethics
and politics, of what might be called ``practices of the self'' and ``practices of government'', that weaves them together without
a reduction of one to the other' (Dean, 1994:
174). While more Marxist critics have
accused governmentality studies of abandoning radical politics (e.g. Frankel, 1997),
governmentality researchers are also not
uncritical of the subeld's drawbacks (see
Hindess, 1997; O'Malley et al., 1997).
The individual
Despite Foucault's radical social constructivism, his work accentuates two
important aspects of individual agency.
First, Foucault's work and that of
his adherents indicate that the subjects


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

of modernity's disciplinary matrix

soldiers, prisoners, sexual deviants,
patients and children can and do subvert
the conditions of their subjectivity. For
example, in his history of nineteenthcentury sexology Jeffrey Weeks notes that
while sexologists `sought to regulate
through naming; it also provided the
springboard for self-denition and individual and collective resistance' (1987: 38).
This made it possible in the twentieth century for the gay movement to reverse
medical `naming' practices around restrictive homosexual categories, and mobilize
itself as a collective agent of social change.
Second, Foucault's individual is not the
traditional subject caught in an ontological tug-of-war between liberation and
domination. This is an image created by
traditional philosophical and social
science discourses limited by rigid theoretical models and political ideologies.
Rather, the individual for Foucault is
the personal space where both active and
passive, and regulated and resistant
possibilities for human agency surface in
the context of material practices.
These ideas about individual subjectivity gure largely in Foucault's later
work on pre-Christian ethics and sexuality (1985, 1986, 1993). Here his innovative
research on the `self' and subjective
`games of truth' incorporates a highly
active dimension of individual subjectivity, one less conned to relations of power
and scientic discourse and more geared
to the social imperatives of a self-stylized
autonomy. Most signicantly, in thinking
through the ethical congurations of
ancient society, Foucault began to consider how self-knowledge can be separate
His remarks in one of his last interviews
suggest the directions in which his future
work may have been heading: `I would
call subjectivization the process through
which results the constitution of a subject,
or more exactly, of a subjectivity which
is obviously only one of the given
possibilities of organizing a consciousness
of self' (1989: 330). Individual subjectivity
is thus contingent and unstable because

there are other `possibilities of organizing

a consciousness of self'. Foucault's commentators generally agree that had he
lived he would have rened this aspect
of his work and created a new set of questions on refashioning the arts of life. In this
regard, historian and friend Paul Veyne
comments that during the last eight
months of Foucault's life the writing
of his two nal books on the history of
sexuality `played the role for him that
philosophical writing and the personal
journal played in ancient philosophy:
that of a work of the self on the self, a
self-stylization' (1993: 8). And with
Foucault's demise in mind, Veyne concludes that, `Foucault's originality
among the great thinkers of our century
lay in his refusal to convert our nitude
into the basis for new certainties' (1993: 5).
Foucault's contestations of the human
sciences and the legacy of the
Enlightenment have inspired an industry
of vigorous controversy, in particular
around his historical method and political
theories. Critics concerned with historical
method have taken Foucault to task for
forefronting his antipositivist archaeological and genealogical strategies at the
expense of proper scholarly explication.
The result, to the critics, has been the
popularization of inaccurate accounts of
the past often based on indiscriminate
and poorly researched documentation.
For example, when Foucault refers to the
period spanning the seventeenth to eighteenth centuries as the `classical age' in
The Order of Things and Madness and
Civilization, he provides no clear account
of how this `age' transmuted into the
`modern age' in the nineteenth century.
Further, historians have complained
about Foucault's assumption that the historical discontinuities and reversals he
discovered apply cross-nationally, when
in fact large differences exist between
nations and localities. For instance, the

Michel Foucault

history of asylums and hospitals in

England and other countries is quite distinctive from that of France (see Porter,
1987; Bynum, 1994). Other critiques of
Foucault's historical method can be
found in the excellent collection Foucault
and the Writing of History (Goldstein, 1994).
In an interview relevant to the critique of
historical method, Foucault claimed he
was `well aware' that he had never `written
anything but ctions', although ctions do
not mean `that truth is therefore absent'
(1980: 193). And in a sense Foucault does
invent quasi-historical formations such as
a `disciplinary society' and a `classical age'.
His case studies of the clinic, prison, asylum, sexuality, and ancient ethics are not
factually comprehensive histories; rather,
they illustrate how specic problems
arose in particular historical conjunctures.
Nevertheless, Foucault's critics have
been challenged to examine their own
methodological assumptions, even if they
are right about his historical oversights.
More widespread have been the debates
over Foucault's political theories, especially his sweeping notion of power,
which, it is claimed, denies the political
eld of human agency and resistance. It
is true that Foucault's work often traces
the historical classication and division
of bodies and populations by way of
their domination, despite his insistence
that power is `productive' as well as
repressive. Foucault's later investigations
into the ethics of the individual self
partially resolved the place of the active
subject in political life (as the discussion
above indicates). Still, readers who
expected Foucault to align himself with a
particular political agenda or outline a
theory of resistance are left hanging.
Feminist scholars and activists have presented the most extensive critique of
Foucault's political theories, developing
a sophisticated Foucault-feminist literature in the process (Bell, 1993; McNay
1993; Ramazanoglu 1993; Deveaux, 1994;
Hekman, 1996). They have either castigated Foucault for his lack of attention to
gender inequality, women's history, and
sexual violence, or only provisionally


accepted his theoretical interventions,

substantially reworking them in order to
overcome their limitations. Feminists
have stressed in particular that the body
is both a site of regulation, where gendered identities are maintained, and a
site of resistance, where they are undone.
For example, Lois McNay agrees with
Foucault that `sexuality is produced in
the body in such a manner as to facilitate
the regulation of social relations' (1993:
32). She adds that not all aspects of sexuality, corporeality, and desire are products
of power relations, however. In a similar
vein, Judith Butler writes that ritualized
body performances that bind women to
ctional feminine identities can also
become deconstructive performances that
expose the arbitrariness of such identities
(1990: 14041). Feminist writers, through
their critique of Foucault based on body
politics and gendered relations of power
and resistance, have indeed advanced
Foucaultian social theory in the most
innovative directions.
It is precisely because Foucault
eschewed political alliance and theoretical
afliation that his readers have been able
to inscribe their own politics and scholarship on his intentions, and to create a
lively critical exchange around his ideas.
But Foucault also inspired controversy
because he was passionate about ideas.
He says in one of his most interesting
interviews that he dreams `of a new
age of curiosity' (1989: 199). To Foucault,
curiosity `evokes the care one takes for
what exists and could exist; a readiness to
nd strange and singular what surrounds
us' and `a fervour to grasp what is happening and what passes' (1989: 1989). If care,
readiness, fervour and curiosity are the
dreams and guidelines that inspired
Foucault's career, then perhaps these are
the true keys to understanding his place
in contemporary social theory.


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Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

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Jean-Franc ois Lyotard



(192498) is known within the
terms of social theory for his writing
The Postmodern Condition: A Report on
Knowledge, which helped dene the
terms for the discussion around postmodernity, this was a text which he was
to feel very ambivalent about. In different
ways he felt estranged from the manner in
which the contrast between modernity
and postmodernity was being drawn. He
was much less concerned with making a
temporal distinction and in different ways
distanced himself in his later writings
which had much to do with aesthetics,
from the discussion that he helped open
up around the postmodern. He was still
concerned to question the grand narratives of history, freedom, and progress
which had shaped classical forms of social
theory. In different ways he was critical of
Marxism as well as liberalism as grand
narratives which were at least partly
trapped within the terms of an
Enlightenment vision of modernity.
But Lyotard's questioning of grand narratives and the forms of social theory
which would ow from them should not

be understood as an abandonment of
politics. Rather he sought a different
kind of politics which could engage with
the ways the world had changed since the
1960s. He makes this clear in his own
reections on his early political writings
on Algeria and his intense involvement
over many years from the 1950s with the
journal Socialism or Barbarism. Writing in
June 1989, less than a decade before his
death in a piece `The Name of Algeria',
he pays homage to the education he
received from the group and the support
they gave to his writings. He also remembers how he lived in Constantine in
Algeria between 1950 and 1952 when he
arrived from the Sorbonne to teach in its
high school. `But with what colours
should I paint what astonished me, that
is the immensity of the injustice? An entire
people, from a great civilisation, wronged,
(Lyotard, 1993b: 170).
As a young teacher coming from France
he owed a debt to Constantine. `The
French Republic contrived to burden a
few young Algerians with a borrowed
culture while their own culture, that of
their people it language, its space, its
time had been and continued to be devastated by a century of French occupation'

Jean-Franc ois Lyotard

(Lyotard, 1993b: 170) When the group

Socialism or Barbarism gave Lyotard
responsibility for the Algerian section in
1955, it allowed him to honour a debt.
I owed and I owe my awakening, tout court, to
Constantine. The differend showed itself with
such a sharpness that the consolations then common among my peers (vague reformism, pious
Stalinism, futile leftism) were denied to me. This
humiliated people, once risen up, would not compromise. But at the same time, they did not have
the means of achieving what is called liberty.
(Lyotard, 1993b: 170)

It was through lending practical `support' to the militants of the FLN

(National Liberation Front), whilst at the
same time making theoretical criticisms of
the organization in the journal, that
Lyotard learnt his politics. It was indispensable to criticize the class nature
of the independent society that their
struggle was preparing to bring about.
There could be no easy reconciliation. As
far as he was concerned `This intimate differend should remain unresolved, unless
we wish to lend credence to the false
and dangerous idea that history marches
at the same pace everywhere . . .' (Lyotard,
1993b: 168).
Socialism or Barbarism had broken with
the Fourth International founded by
Trotsky in 1937, which had been unable
to dene the class nature of `communist'
societies and the formation of a new
exploitative ruling class. Trapped by an
economism, Trotskyism had failed to profoundly rethink the desire for autonomy
or disalienation which animates workers' struggles in developed capitalist
societies. In contrast to democratic centralism, Socialism or Barbarism was concerned
to learn from forms of organization that
workers spontaneously invent in their
struggles and daily resistance. Drawing
on a variety of sources including
Pannekoek's Workers Council movement
they were concerned to also analyse
changes which capitalism undergoes by
virtue of its own development. This
remained crucial to Lyotard who was constantly attempting to engage with the
transformations in capitalist societies.


The inventiveness which he saw in

workers' struggles is already emancipation. It was not a matter of providing a
`correct' analysis, rather: `Such a description perpetuates the forgetting of what
was actually at stake (this is a common
idiocy of historical and sociological
studies)' (Lyotard, 1993b: 166).
Reecting back, long after the inuence
of The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard was
concerned not to forget
what is and remains absolutely true about what
was at stake. True even today, when the principle
of a radical alternative to capitalist domination
(workers power) must be abandoned (something
that allows many people, innocent or guilty, to
relinquish all resistance and surrender unconditionally to the state of things). This stake, which
motivates the carrying on of resistance by other
means, on other terrains, and perhaps without
goals that can be clearly dened, has always
been, and remains, the intractable [intraitable].
(Lyotard, 1993b: 166)

We might think for a moment of the road

protesters in Britain and the recent movements against the export of livestock and
GM crops that had not been anticipated.
Lyotard still thinks that the ideas that
guided Socialism or Barbarism, even if it
was expressed in other terms, is `the idea
that there is something within that
system that it cannot, in principle, deal
with [traitor]. Something that a system
must, by virtue of its nature, overlook'
(Lyotard, 1993b: 166). By helping to show
the motive of their resistance in capitalist
as well as in `postcapitalist' societies
which can remain `inexpressible' to those
who resist you can support them in their
resistance and so prevent them from being
`robbed of it under the pretext that it is
necessary to organize oneself in order to
resist.' (p. 167) Lyotard still appreciated
the value of this work and its continuing
relevance especially when it `was directed
by an open attention, a free-oating attention, to living contemporary struggle, in
which the intractable continued to show
itself.' (p. 167) For a long time the group
practised self-effacement in order to give
the workers the opportunity to speak. It
was only much later in 1968 that the


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

group appeared on what is called the political stage when the student movement
took up its vision.
Grand Narratives and the `Postmodern'
Writing in 1989, recalling the education he
had received in Socialism or Barbarism and
by placing their work under the sign of the
intractable, Lyotard was concerned
that the `work' we did can and must be continued,
even when everything indicates that Marxism is
nished with as a revolutionary perspective (and
doubtless every truly revolutionary perspective is
nished with), when the intractable voice or the
voice of the intractable is no longer heard in
Western societies on the social and political wavelengths. (Lyotard, 1993b: 168)

Lyotard recognizes as a reality we have to

face that
the intractable has fallen silent in the realm in
which it has spoken for over a century, that is in
the realm of social and political struggles. I am not
claiming that one should cease to take an interest
in that realm. Rather, those struggles no longer
demand `work,' this work of spirit, of body and
soul, that was required in order to hear them and
take part in them only thirty years ago. It seems to
me that they do not demand anything more than
intellectual, ethical and civic probity. (Lyotard,
1993b: 169)

We might question where this judgment

comes from and what the somewhat enigmatic conclusion means. But it might be
that he is just trying to remind us of a
suspicion that was already felt by some
in the group in 1960 `that the political
was ceasing or would cease to be the
privileged site in which the intractable
appeared. We spoke of a ``depoliticization''. It was on account of this that the
group split up' (Lyotard, 1993b: 169).
Lyotard seemed to learn that we should
be ready to listen from wherever the cry
of resistance would come. He concludes
though that it would be `intellectually dishonest' just to look round for another
revolutionary subject to ll the vacated
place of the industrial proletariat. Rather
than looking to the freely spontaneous

activities of such as young people, immigrants, women, homosexuals, prisoners,

or the people of the Third World, as far
as Lyotard concludes `thought must
yield to the evidence that the grand
narratives of emancipation, beginning (or
ending) with ``ours'', that of radical
Marxism, have lost their intelligibility
and their substance' (Lyotard, 1993b: 169).
Reecting back to the days of political
activity with the benet of hindsight,
Lyotard seeks a more general conclusion
about the place of grand narratives. The
relationship between the anxieties of
the present and the hopes of the past
allows him to make his point about
grand narratives in a focused way, even
if it is overgeneralized. As he explains it
in 1989:
The presumption of the moderns, of Christianity,
Enlightenment, Marxism, has always been that
another voice is stied in the discourse of `reality'
and that it is a question of putting a true hero (the
creature of God, the reasonable citizen, or the
enfranchised proletarian) back in his position as
subject, wrongfully usurped by the impostor.
What we called `depoliticization' twenty-ve
years ago was in fact the announcement of the
erasure of this great gure of the alternative, and
at the same time, that of the great founding legitimacies. That is more or less what I have tried to
designate, clumsily, by the term `postmodern'.
(Lyotard, 1992b: 169)

As far as Lyotard is concerned, this

leaves social theory with a different kind
of task, namely `to work out a conception
and a practice completely different from
the ones that inspired ``classical'' modernity'. At the very least this seems to mean
that we cannot retain our focus on the
realm of social and political struggles.
Classical forms of social theory inuenced
by Marx, Weber, and Durkheim have
shared an assumption that injustice and
oppression are only `real' when they take
place within the public realm of politics.
In their different ways they were dismissive of the private, personal, and intimate
realms which were deemed `subjective'
and so beyond the concerns of a social
theory which sought to be `objective' and
`scientic'. We have to explore new forms

Jean-Franc ois Lyotard

of social theory, but Lyotard seems condent that we should still be concerned
with giving voice to the intractable. As
he expresses it: `Certainly, something of
the intractable persists in the present system, but it is not possible to locate and
support its expressions or signs in the
same area of the community and with
the same means as those of half a century
ago' (Lyotard, 1993b: 169).
As Lyotard makes clear in The Differend
which he wrote in 1982, society is inhabited by differends. This crucial notion was
explained by Lyotard in this piece. `I
would say that there is a differend
between two parties when the ``settlement'' of the conict that opposes them
appears in the idiom of one of them
while the tort from which the other suffers
cannot signify itself in this idiom' (Lyotard,
1993b: 9). The wage contract does not prevent but in fact presupposes that workers
or their trade union representatives will
have to speak of their labour as if it were
a commodity of which they were the
owners. Marxism refuses to do so. As
Lyotard continues to insist:
With the logic of capital, the aspect of Marxism that
remains alive is, at least, this sense of differend,
which forbids any reconciliation of the parties in
the idiom of either one of them. Something like this
occurred in 1968, and has occurred in the women's
movement for ten years, and the differend underlies the question of the immigrant workers. There
are other cases. (Lyotard, 1993b: 10)

In insisting on the differend, Lyotard is

refusing the authority which would seek
a reconciliation between different voices
at the expense of silencing them. He
would question philosophers and social
theorists who present themselves as
authorities and who would encourage
people to believe that there can be competence and authority in matters of justice, in
matters of beauty, of happiness, and perhaps even of truth. As Lyotard argued in a
piece on television entitled `A Podium
without a Podium'
If philosophers agree to help their fellow citizens
to believe in authority in matters where there isn't
any, to legitimate this authority, then they cease to
ponder in the sense in which I spoke of thinking,


and they thereby cease to be philosophers . . . They

become what one calls intellectuals, that is, persons who legitimate a claimed competence . . .
their own, but persons who above all legitimate
the very idea that there ought to be competence in
everything. (Lyotard, 1993b: 95)

Lyotard wanted to be part of the small

minority of philosophers since Plato who
does not succumb to this temptation. This
is something we have to keep in mind if
we are to do justice to him in a collection
of social theorists.
When Lyotard is thinking about the
postmodern in his piece on `A Svelte
Appendix to the Postmodern Question'
(1982: 27), he thinks that our role `as thinkers is to deepen what language there is,
to critique the shallow notion of information, to reveal an irremediable opacity
within language itself'. It is through the
notion of irreconcilability in language
that he seems to be developing his notion
of the differend. He thinks that when
Habermas gives lessons in progressive
thought to Derrida and Foucault and
when he speaks of the neoirrationalism
of French thought in the name of the project of modernity, he is seriously mistaken
about what is at issue in modernity. As
Lyotard seeks to explain it:
The issue was not and is not (for modernity has
not come to an end), the Enlightenment pure and
simple, it was an is the insinuation of will into
reason. Kant spoke of a drive of reason to go
beyond experience, and he understood philosophy anthropologically as a Drang, an impulse to
ght, to create differends (Streiten). (p. 26)

Even if we are left unclear about this closing terse phrase, it gives us some feeling
for Lyotard's turn towards Kant and his
notion of the sublime.
Lyotard confronts Habermas when he
draws upon his particular reading of
Wittgenstein and his notion of language
games to say that `Language is not an
``instrument of communication'', it is a
highly complex archipelago formed of
domains of phrases, phrases from such
different regimes that one cannot translate
a phrase from one regime (a descriptive,
for example) into a phrase from another
(an evaluation, a prescriptive)' (p. 28). It


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

was as if Lyotard hoped to be able to

somehow capture the political insights
into the differends through his exploration of the incommensurability of the
phrase regimes between the scientic,
literary, and artistic avant-gardes. And
connecting to more recent moments:
As for what you call French philosophy of recent
years, if it has been postmodern in some way, this
is because it has also stressed incommensurability,
through its reections on the deconstruction of
writing (Derrida), on the disorder of discourse
(Foucault), on the epistemological paradox
(Serres), on alterity (Levinas), on the effect of meaning by nomadic encounter (Deleuze). (Lyotard,
1983b: 28)

No historical forces or even an indomitable popular will can account for the inexplicable mass demonstrations in Algeria
or the events in Paris in May 1968. These
events took the world by surprise and it
seemed impossible to predict them. `1968'
functions as a name that refuses a sense of
temporality which connects to a regulated
succession of events. The meaning of these
events are yet to be determined because
they serve to defy the established political
criteria through which we seek to order
them. Rather, as Bill Readings has it
`these names indicate referents whose
meanings is yet to be determined, that
evoke a work of political discussion in
order to invent the criteria by which they
may be judged' (Lyotard, 1983b: xiv).
Lyotard was very aware of the weight of
the capitalist economy and institutions of
the modern state. He had also learnt that
any politics which seeks to organize resistance through political parties and trade
unions only serves to strengthen the state.
In an advanced capitalist democracy,
capitalism does not so much suffer from
contradictions so much as prot from
them. Resistance comes to be co-opted as
it becomes mediated by a representational
system. The workers' strength is no
longer their own but rather is returned
to them as illusory representation,
whether it be through the wage contract

or through the integration of the unions

into a `communist' state. Lyotard had
long become sceptical of the claims of different political systems but knew that
despite the capacity of systems of political
representation to absorb and channel
resistance, unpredictable events happened. Lyotard was concerned to listen,
to hear an emerging politics which could
not speak the language of the political.
He was concerned to be a minoritarian
thinker, helping to nurture a politics
which is devoid of all totalitarian traces.
Lyotard was concerned to discover
ways of thinking, speaking, and acting
politically without presuming an authority. The notion of authority presumes a
capacity to legislate for others, to say
what is `right' and `wrong'. He no longer
believed that we could establish prescriptions as to the nature of justice, as if there
were neutral and determinate criteria. As
far as he was concerned this was the rst
step toward totalitarianism and terror,
since difference is precluded right from
the start. He was not concerned with
establishing an alternative authority
which would stand opposed to that legitimated within capitalist democracies.
He was suspicious about authorities
which would claim to legislate for others
and so he questioned a modernity which
had assumed a universal and impartial
conception of reason which could legislate
what was `good' and `right' for others. He
was concerned to establish a vision of the
postmodern which would give space for
others who had been silenced and shamed
through the arrogance of a dominant reason which presumed to be able to speak
on behalf of others.
So Lyotard questions the claims to
representation that are encoded within
an Enlightenment vision of modernity.
We had to learn how to listen to others.
He could have learnt congruent insights
from feminism. Women had been silenced
with the institutions of democratic representations and had to develop their own
practices of consciousness-raising in
which they could discover their different
voices and so explore their own desires for

Jean-Franc ois Lyotard

themselves, rather than evaluate their

lives according to criteria provided by a
dominant masculinity. They could not
say in advance `what they wanted' for
they had to explore who they could
become as women. They rejected the
idea that this meant they were `irrational'
because they refused to say, but insisted
on taking time and space for themselves.
This resonates with Lyotard's vision of
politics as an uncertain process of indeterminate judgment. But it was difcult for
men to learn how to listen if they already
assumed a reason which could legislate
for others. Rather we needed a different
vision of justice which did not seek to be
justied once and for all. Ready to listen
to others, justice would no longer seek to
be authoritative but would involve listening to different voices. Rather than
attempting to determine the identity of
the political, Lyotard insists on a politics
of difference.
These are ideas which Lyotard learnt
through the events of May 1968 and the
politics of refusal which students voiced.
They refused to understand their intellectual activity as a process of training that
would assign them to pregiven positions
within the State. They insisted that learning was an open process of exploration
and that they did not know what kind
of people they may become through
critically engaging with the culture they
inherited. They insisted upon questioning
traditions handed down to them as they
learnt to think and desire for themselves,
refusing what authorities had prepared
for them. They readily questioned the
representational claims of democracy,
that society can reect itself to itself.
Rather students felt they had to speak
for themselves as they questioned the
right of traditional authorities to legislate
for them. Through this eruption
which people could not have anticipated,
theory and action seemed to have become
one. May 1968 was to remain a potent
memory for Lyotard, a moment of
boundless intensity which seemed to
allow the sudden transformation of political into libidinal economy. As Lyotard


wrote in Derive a Partir de Marx et Freud

(1973: 10), his writing is `an effort to
raise theory to the same degree of intensity as had been attained by practice in
May 68'.
In his work Libidinal Economy, Lyotard
is concerned to announce a desirerevolution. He is concerned to escape
from the deceptive authority of meaning
and as he makes clear at this time:
What is important in a text is not its meaning,
what it is trying to say, but what it does and causes
to be done. What it does: the affective charge it
contains and communicates; what it causes to be
done: the transformation of these potential energies into something else other texts, but also
paintings, photos, lm sequences, political
actions, inspirations to love, refusals to obey, economic initiatives. (Derive a Partir de Marx and
Freud, 1973: 6)

This emphasis on the energies and intensities produced by a text, rather than its
meaning remain a crucial theme for
Deleuze. For Lyotard at this time it has
to do with his suspicion of a reason
which is so closely allied with power. As
he has it: `Reason is already in power in
capital. And it is not because it is not
rational that we want to destroy capital,
but because it is. Reason and power are
one and the same' (pp. 1213).
Lyotard wants to break with a tradition
of critique because he thinks of it is as
merely a negative activity. Insofar as it is
rational, he thinks it is basically dependent upon the system it is criticizing. It
is the exercise of another form of authority
which claims to know best. As far as he is
The critic remains within the sphere of what is
criticized . . . And [this activity] is profoundly hierarchical: from where does the critic derive his
power over the object of his criticism ? Does he
know better ? Is he the teacher, the educator ? Is he
then universality, the university, the State . . . The
confessor and God helping the sinner to save himself ? This staying-within-the-same-sphere reformism sits very well with the maintenance of
authoritarian structures . . . one must drift beyond
criticism. But more than this, drifting is itself the
end of criticism. (Rudiments Paiens, Paris UGE,
1977, pp. 1415)


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Minority Affirmations
Rather than critique, Lyotard is concerned
with what he calls minority afrmations.
Following Nietzsche he is also pursuing a
`new way to say ``yes'''. They occur, like
art, unheeded by theory, as barely noticed
microscopic changes in everyday life.
`They are rened and delicate, long
before their expression or appearance on
the public stage: thousands of mufed
grumblings among housewives long
before the Women's Liberation Movement; thousands of jokes told and retold
in Prague before the ``Spring'' ' (1977: 117).
He sees similar movements taking place
within the sphere of production for:
within the body of capital, there exists another
form of socio-economic life, another noncentred
`domain' made up from a host of individual or
anarchic acts of exchange, which have nothing to
do with the `rationality' of production. And it cannot be said that that form of life is a contestation or
critique of capitalism (it is not even certain that it
bears a relation to the decadent idea of work).
(Lyotard, 1977: 137)

As Christa Burger (1992: 76) notes,

whilst ghting `against such phenomena
being interpreted, since interpretation,
like critique, remains caught in the dichotomous categories of the dominant rationality' which would rob these afrmations
of their specic power, Lyotard provides
his own virtually classical interpretation.
This tendency gets only stronger in his
later writings drawing on Kant's aesthetic
writings. In this instance he sees these
minority afrmations as a reversal of the
`ruse of reason' which no longer reveals
itself in the course of world history, but
`la petite vie', gradually transforming it
into `a sort of ``civil society'' which has
little to do with Hegel's, but is simultaneously informal and active, and continually eludes the instances of power' (1977:
Since the late 1970s narrative has been a
key concept in Lyotard's work. It seems as
if a reading of Solzhenitsyn's Gulag
Archiplego produced a kind of awakening
that forced a rethinking of his intellectual
work. For a period at least he seems to

forsake his earlier work. As Burger (1992:

77) has it: `The canonical narrative, the evil
in history, appears in two almost equally
sinister guises: in Marxist and capitalist
variants. Both are totalitarian; both
demand belief'. People have to accept
their silence as they are spoken for within
these dominant narratives in which they
are no longer listened too. Whatever resistance they make has already been
accounted for. Either it is a sign of their
`false consciousness' or else in the
money-narrative which is capitalism's
canonical story it `tells us that we can tell
any stories we like but it also tells us
that authors must reap the prots on
their narratives . . . So there is an element
of religion in capitalism: the exclusive
worship of the narrative entrepreneur.'
(Benjamin, 1989).
We cannot put our faith in theory to
question these master-narratives because
theory is just another form of masternarrative. Lyotard puts more hope in the
spread of `unbelief' and the destruction of
the narrative monopolies by a politics of
`little narratives'. Lyotard dates an erosion
of master-narratives by `thousands of
uncomfortable little stories' (Benjamin,
1989: 127) from events like May 1968 or
the Gulag Archipelago, which he describes
as a `narrative explosion' in which `the
dignity of narration' was saved.
But Lyotard is also suspicious of theory
on account of its piety of remembering
and because of its need to struggle against
oblivion. At times it is important to forget
so that we can break with the grip of the
ways in which the past is remembered by
those who have the power to remember in
the present. But as Burger (1992: 79) also
As with everything in Lyotard's work, the polemic
against memory also has its political point:
because capitalism is a system which makes use
of anything, it also pulls memory into its circle of
operations, setting in train an endless movement
of museication of culture. Only the radical
destruction of memory can stop this movement.

This also connects to his challenge to

representation, which inevitably for

Jean-Franc ois Lyotard

Lyotard involves a hierarchical referring

back of a sign to its meaning. Again this
is something we need to be able to escape
Involved in Lyotard's thinking the postmodern is a break with designations
which he takes to be a metaphysical or
`theological' procedure which serves to
negate what is `present' in favour of a
level which lies above or beneath it.
Lyotard's intention here is to break with
metanarratives which implicitly depend
upon a two-stage schema of the appropriation of reality. This is characteristic
both of a HegelMarx tradition and of previous conservative cultural critique.
Lyotard follows Nietzsche in preferring
to accept what is present as it is. As
Nietzsche writes in The Will To Power:
It is of cardinal importance that one should
abolish the `true world' (that is, the distinction
between true and apparent world, and thus a twodimensional thinking). It is the great inspirer of
doubt and devaluator in respect of the world
`we are': it has been our most dangerous attempt
yet to assassinate life. (Nietzsche, 1968: 314)

Lyotard's afrmation means precisely

the renunciation of a metaphysical level
from which the present-at-hand can be
criticized as imperfect, defective, and
somehow falling short for not corresponding with its object. In his terms
both morality and critique presuppose
two distinct levels, one being the level
of what is present-at-hand and the other a
level of `reality' with which the existent
can be confronted. In contrast Lyotard
prefers an afrmative position toward
social reality even if it means we should
somehow think the `pious' Marxist concept of alienation positively/afrmatively,
that is without the idea of loss. He thinks
that we must stop conceiving of alienation
as the `loss' of something. It is supposedly
a strength of the libidinal economy he
calls for that it dispenses with representation. This is partly because he does not
bemoan the destruction of the subject
by capitalism as a loss. Rather he seeks
to discover within the dynamics of
capitalism forces which eliminate all


hierarchies at the same time as it eliminates the subject.


Critics of Lyotard have argued that his
afrmative aesthetics can at any point go
over into a `saying-yes to the world just as
it is, without deviation, exception and
selection' (Nietzsche). This could involve
a saying yes to power, which he is supposed to be combating. If this is a danger
it is one which Lyotard is usually careful
to avoid. But it did seem in his exhibition
commissioned by France's socialist government, to which he gave the title Les
Immateriaux, as if he was uncritical of the
new technologies and wary of the `apocalyptic' visions expressed by the Greens.
As with Foucault, he welcomed the disappearance of the concept of `man' as a
short-lived product of the process of evolution. As far as he was concerned the
`human', as substantivized adjective,
refers to an old domain of knowledges
which the techno-sciences have recently
made their own.
The ideas associated in Lyotard's mind
with the concept of the `material', which
fuel the immediate sense that the human
being possesses a particular identity, have
grown weaker with the new technosciences. This has worked to undermine
ideas we inherit of experience, memory,
work, autonomy, and generally the radical
distinction of the human from the nonhuman. At the same time the ideas of
general interaction which have, for
instance, allowed us to `read' the human
cerebral cortex as one reads an electronic
eld, have grown stronger. Always
searching for new formulations which
help avoid confusions that have settled
around the notion of the postmodern,
Lyotard in the mid-1980s is concerned to
counterpose modernity, which he now
associates with the concepts of the
material, subject, and project, to postmodernity, in which les immateriaux, the


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

disappearance of the subject and interaction, become critical terms.

Changes in the sphere of production,
which are working to transform our
ideas of human beings and work as well
as our forms of perception, help Lyotard
think of the present as indeed a postmodern period of transition. In his text
of the period Le Differend, he introduces
an epoch of philosophizing which is to
supersede that of the grand metanarratives. What seems to be crucial is the
ways different areas of art have become
reexive. But as Burger (1992: 85) notes,
`it is quite evident that in the aesthetic
eld Lyotard is clearly concerned precisely not to dene the postmodern in
opposition to the modern, but to connect
it to it. It is only thus that he can bring his
own aesthetic position into play'.
According to Lyotard, it is the shift in
the reception of art from sense perception
to reection that characterizes the postmodern.
Since theorists of art and architecture
have turned postmodernism into a battlecry of a thoroughly aggressive antimodernism, Lyotard has felt that he had
to distance himself from the aesthetic
postmodern. He is more interested in
exploring whether modern art can be
explicated in the terms of Kant's analytic
of the sublime. To do this he draws less on
Kant's argumentation and more on individual concepts like formlessness and
nonrepresentability. But as Burger points
out, Kant's theory is formulated from the
perspective of the experiencing subject
whereas Lyotard, by contrast, discusses
the problem of nonrepresentability from
the perspective of the producer. Lyotard
is describing an artistic project.
For Lyotard, his loss of faith in a politics
of redemption and his turn to aesthetics
have to do with his resistance to the kind
of modernist universalism that could be
associated with Habermas. He no longer
understood politics as the ordering of
the political through an impartial and universal conception of reason. When he talks
about `depoliticization' or `antipolitics' he
is breaking with an Enlightenment project

which proclaims the capacity of rational

thought to make `man' the master of his
world and so realize `mankind's' essential
freedom. He takes a distance from the
Enlightenment model of politics whether
in its liberal or Marxist forms as the site of
a secular redemption. Postmodernism
marks a loss of faith in the modernist
idea of emancipation that believes that
history will save us through political
action by producing a transcendent, liberated, and empowered subject.
The loss of faith in traditional political
resistance is linked to the rise of the
modern bureaucratic state as an essentially unipolar society, as Bill Readings has
characterized it. As he puts it:
the unipolar Western state, by presuming the
intertranslatability of political forces, turns almost
all resistance into a source of energy. All dissidence can be expressed, provided that it allows
itself to be represented. Politics ends once the
state becomes the sole site where the political is
managed, an end in itself. (Lyotard, 1993b: xx)

So it is that as capitalism becomes a global

system, power appears as administration
rather than as coercion, managerial rather
than as directly oppressive. Managerial
discourses present themselves as neutral,
bringing `efciency' into every sphere.
The transformation in the public sphere,
including the universities, has proved
difcult to resist. Lyotard's work is consistently engaged in an attempt to rethink the
terms of resistance, to nd ways `to think
against a state that has no outside, that
seeks always to realise itself as the state
of things.' (Lyotard, 1993b: xx)
Lyotard argues against the pretensions
to speak in the name of others. He identies this as a crucial injustice, be it liberal
or totalitarian. To pretend to speak for the
oppressed is to objectify them once more.
He sees this as part of a general complicity
of radical organizations with the systems
they claim to oppose. They simply reinforce the political structures of representation, as do trade unions when they
treat workers they claim to represent as
nothing but the mute references of their
own discourse. But Lyotard's attack on

Jean-Franc ois Lyotard

the politics of representation is more than

a plea for autonomy, for letting people
speak for themselves. Bill Readings
appreciates that it is more radically an
argument against discursive legitimation
as such, as against the kind of modernist
politics defended by Habermas. As
Lyotard points out in `The Grip'
(Mainmise), the dream of discursive autonomy is itself founded on a forgetting of
debt and obligation to the other. It raises
for Lyotard the crucial question of the presumption of authority. As Readings
frames it: `To presume that all people
can in principle speak for themselves is a
double victimization: it assumes the speaker's access to discourse and it assumes
that the speaker is inherently a potential
modern subject' (Lyotard, 1993b: xxi).
Lyotard's early appeal to spontaneous
popular resistance comes to be replaced
by a focus on judgment and witness. In
the writings on May 1968, it seems that
desire can still breach the dominant
mode of discursive representation, erupt
in a way that cannot be controlled by the
state. Resistance becomes a form of attention which can listen for intractable differend with representation, `which forbids
any reconciliation of the parties in the
idiom of either one of them' (`The
Differend'). The turn to the differend is
connected with a turn to Judaism and a
decisive rejection of an alternative ground
for political critique. As Readings puts it
`Politics becomes a matter of justice, of
handling differences, rather than of establishing truth or even countertruth.'
(Lyotard, 1993b: xxiv) As Lyotard explores
in Just Gaming there is a clear philosophical rejection of models of the perfect
society which have haunted the West.
His discussions on the postmodern
which are often pulled in different directions, share a sense that the time of `big
politics' is over, the idea of the political
as the site where humanity struggles to
dene its destiny and realize its meanings,
may well have passed.
Paradoxically this means a refusal to
think that politics will ever come to an
end. As politics ceases to be the sphere in


which human beings explore the meanings

of their lives, so as Readings has it `politics
ceases to be the search for an identity, a
redemptive signicance that might lie
behind or beyond the activities of everyday life. Rather, politics is the attempt to
handle conicts that admit to no resolution, to think justice in relation to conict
and difference' (Lyotard, 1993b: xxiv). In
his argument with Habermas Lyotard is
thinking against attempts to render the
predicament of modernity as the locus of
a determinate historical project for the realization of a universal subject. Testifying
to difference does not mean overcoming
it by achieving communication between
them, but rather a respectful acknowledgement as Readings puts it `of the
impossibility and necessity of exchange,
around a differend that is sensed but cannot be expressed in a shared idiom, over
which no nal agreement can be reached'
(Lyotard, 1993b: xxvi).
Lyotard insists that these differences are
not accidentally but structurally repressed
by an Enlightenment vision of modernity
which seeks transparency in representation, communication, and accounting. A
minoritarian politics does not seek to take
its place in `big politics', to gain representation. They do not want to include everyone in a larger consensus but rather testify
to their differend with the Western
discourse of a universal humanity.
Paradoxically it is Lyotard's sense of
debt and obligation to tradition that
works to undermine the Enlightenment
claim to freedom through knowledge.
This sense of a debt which cannot be
repaid underpins Lyotard's writings on
Judaism and `the jews'. Judaism clings to
a tradition founded on respect for the
unrepresentable learning that they cannot
make images of the divine. Auschwitz
names a debt from which European
humanity cannot be freed, an obligation
towards atonement that must not be historically rationalized as one event among
others. It names the injustice of understanding history as a project of liberating
humanity from the past, from tradition,
from obligation to the other, as Levinas


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

has it. Social theories have failed to come

to terms with Auschwitz because it shows
the horrors that waited unrecognized
within modernity.
In 1990, in the shadow of the profanation of the Jewish cemetery of Carpentras
in France, where Jews had lived for more
than a millennium, Lyotard wrote a piece
on `Europe, the Jews and the Book', where
he makes the claim
that the Jews represent `something that Europe
does not want to or cannot know anything
about'. Even when they are dead, it abolishes
their memory and refuses them burial in its
land. All this takes place in the unconscious and
has no right to speak. When the deed is done in
full daylight, Europe is seized for an instant by the
horror and the terror of `confronting its own
desire'. (Lyotard, 1993b: 159)

As Lyotard understands it, in the West

since the French Revolution extended the
Christian motif of fraternity, `We are
brothers, not as sons of God but as free
and equal citizens. It is not an Other who
gives us the law. It is our civic community
that does, that obliges, prohibits, permits.
That is called emancipation from the
Other, and autonomy.' (p. 163) Integration or extermination were the options
offered to `the jews' by the modern enlightened state. They are revealed in the
full horror by the event named
Lyotard wrote Heidegger and `the jews' as
part of his conviction that we have to bear
witness to the `Forgotten' in thought, writing, art and public practice. The negative
lesson that the `forgetting' of the Shoah by
Heidegger, who was the great thinker of
being, `is that this Forgotten is not primarily Being, but the obligation of justice'
(Heidegger and the `the jews', in
Lyotard, 1993b: 147). In reminding us of
this obligation he explains that he
uses the expression `the jews' in a more
general sense, possibly as a reminder of
a more general obligation towards judgment and an awareness of difference
when he says
the expression `the jews' refers to all those who,
wherever they are, seek to remember and to
bear witness to something that is constitutively

forgotten, not only in each individual mind, but

in the very thought of the West. And it refers to
all those who assume this anamnesis and this witnessing as an obligation, a responsibility, or a debt,
not only toward thought, but towards justice.
(Lyotard, 1993b: p. 141)


Lyotard, J.-F. (1984a) The Postmodern Condition.
Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1984b) Driftworks. New York:
Lyotard, J.-F. (1985) Just Gaming. Manchester:
Manchester University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1988a) Peregrinations: Law, Form, Event.
New York: Columbia University Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1988b) The Differend. Minneapolis:
University of Minnesota Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1990) Heidegger and `the jews'.
Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1991a) The Inhuman. Cambridge: Polity
Lyotard, J.-F. (1991b) Phenomenology. New York: State
University of New York Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1992) The Postmodern Explained to
Children. London: Turnaround.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1993a) Libidinal Economy. London:
Athlone Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1993b) Jean-Francois Lyotard: Political
Writings (Ed. B. Readings.) London: UCL Press.
Lyotard, J.-F. (1995) Toward the Postmodern.
Manchester: New Jersey Humanities Press.

Bauman, Z. (1993) Postmodern Ethics. Oxford:
Benjamin, A. (ed.) (1989) The Lyotard Reader. Oxford:
Benjamin, A. (ed.) (1992) Judging Lyotard. London:
Bennington, G. (1988) Lyotard: Writing the Event.
Manchester: Manchester University Press.
Bernstein, R. (1991) The New Constellation.
Cambridge: Polity Press.
Best, S. and Kellner, D. (1991) Postmodern Theory:
Critical Interrogations. London: Macmillan.
Burger, C. (1992) `Modernity and postmodernity:
Jean-Francois Lyotard', in S. Lash and J. Friedman
(eds) Modernity and Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Connor, S. (1992) Theory and Cultural Value. Oxford:
Dews, P. (1987) Logics of Disintegration. London: Verso.
Foster, H. (ed.) (1983) Postmodern Culture. London:
Pluto Press.

Jean-Franc ois Lyotard

Heller, A. (1987) Beyond Justice. Oxford: Blackwell.
Heller, A. and Feher, F. (1988) The Postmodern Political
Condition. Cambridge: Polity.
Lash, S. and Friedman, J. (eds) (1992) Modernity and
Identity. Oxford: Blackwell.
Nicholson, L. (ed.) (1990) Feminism/Postmodernism.
New York: Routledge.
Nietzsche, F. (1968) The Will to Power. (Trans. Walter
Kaufman and R.J Hollingdale.) London:
Weidenfeld and Nicolson.


Readings, B. (1991) Introducing Lyotard: Art and

Politics. London: Routledge.
Rojek C. and Turner, B. (eds) (1998) The Politics of
Jean-Francois Lyotard. London: Routledge.
Rorty, R. (1991) Essays on Heidegger and Others
Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Sim, S. (1996) Jean-Francois Lyotard. London:
Harvester Wheatsheaf.

Jacques Lacan



acques Lacan was born in 1901 in

France, the year after Sigmund
Freud's foundational The Interpretation of Dreams was published. Lacan
was educated at the College Stanislas,
and, after completing his secondary education, he studied medicine in Paris. He
went on to do his clinical training in psychiatry under the supervision of Gaetan
Gatian de Clerambault. He published his
rst articles while he trained as a psychiatrist, and these were mostly on psychiatric
and neurological topics. In 1932, Lacan
published his doctoral thesis `Paranoid
psychosis and its relation to the personality', a copy of which he sent to Freud. As a
psychoanalyst, Lacan was highly unconventional; his fascination with Freud and
psychoanalysis was matched by his passion for philosophy, literature, and the
arts. His public seminars at the Hospital
Sainte-Anne were a mixture of psychoanalytic theory, continental philosophy,
and surrealism; the seminars were
increasingly well attended, mostly by an
eclectic mix of students and professionals.
In the 1960s, Lacan moved his seminar to
the Ecole Normale Superieure, as well as

founded his own psychoanalytic organization, the Ecole Freudienne de Paris. In

addition to his work as a practising psychoanalyst, Lacan wrote many papers on a
range of theoretical issues. As the inuence of his ideas spread, he travelled to
the United States to give lectures at John
Hopkins University, Yale University, and
the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.
He died in Paris in 1981, at the age of 80.
Believing himself to be following in
Freud's footsteps, Lacan sought to revolutionize the temperate Freudianism of his
time, to rescue psychoanalysis from its
institutionalized conservative and conformist tendencies, and to reinscribe and
resituate psychic meanings and processes
within broader social systems and historical structures. Universally acclaimed for
his philosophical interpretation of Freud,
Lacan, along with his structuralist and
post-structuralist contemporaries such as
Levi-Strauss, Foucault, Barthes, and
Derrida, was unquestionably one of the
major French theorists of the post-war
era. His writings, principally his magisterial 900 page Ecrits, which was published in France in 1966, as well as his
published seminars, are notorious for
their complexity and difculty. Indeed
Lacan's style is often infuriatingly

Jacques Lacan

obscure, cryptic, and elusive. Important

intellectual reasons can be offered for the
complexity of Lacan's language, however.
For one thing, in fashioning a difcult
form of thought or discourse, Lacan
wanted to be true to his object of study:
namely, the psyche and its relation to
human subjectivity. For another, he sought
to fashion a psychoanalytic language
which would not submit easily to normalization (which he thought had been
Freud's fate at the hands of American psychoanalysis); he sought a method that
could not easily be attened.
Lacan's work is thus quite different in
scope from that of other psychoanalytic
innovators, such as Melanie Klein, D.W.
Winnicott, or Wilfred Bion. While he kept
abreast of developments in mainstream
psychoanalysis (he borrowed from
Klein's account of the paranoidschizoid
position, for instance, in formulating his
idea of the ego as an agent of misrecognition), Lacan primarily developed
a `return to Freud' that sought to exceed
the connes of psychology and a reductive clinical understanding of psychoanalysis. In widening the frontiers of
Freudian theory, Lacan drew from many
varied sources: rst, from his encounter
with the surrealists; second from his
Alexandre Koyre, and Alexandre Kojeve,
which introduced him to European philosophy, so that in turn he borrowed, and
reworked, philosophical notions from
Heidegger; third, his reading of the linguistic approaches of Ferdinand de
Saussure and Roman Jakobson led to
the privileging of structures and the
decentring of the subject; and nally his
encounter with the structural anthropology of Levi-Strauss added to his enlarged
conception of the Oedipus complex and
the triangular structure of the individual's
relation to society and history.
The importance of Lacan's thought
for contemporary social theory is considerable and varied, and requires some
comment before proceeding further.
Lacan was a psychoanalyst, not a social


theorist. To some, therefore, it might

seem odd that a prole is devoted to him
in a book that is primarily concerned with
modern social theory. And yet I shall propose in what follows that Lacan should
indeed be considered a major social theorist, a theorist who developed a systematic
approach to the study of the relation
between self and society. Lacan's importance consists in certain key themes and
problematics which he has helped to
bring to prominence in social theory
including the status of the imaginary in
personal and social life, the symbolic
ordering of social relations, the fracturing
effects of the unconscious upon social
order, and the phallocentric structuring
of sexual subjectivity in contemporary
Lacan's `Return to Freud'
Perhaps the most central preoccupation of
Lacan's interpretation of Freudian psychoanalysis is the primacy accorded to
the unconscious in the human subject's
relations with others. Freud's discovery
of the repressed unconscious, which contradicted the unitary rational subject, and
hence the belief that the ego was master
in its own house, was of great importance
to Lacan, as indicated by his sceptical
and mostly negative comments about
American ego-psychology and its negation of the spirit of subversion of psychoanalysis. The theoretical downgrading of
the unconscious at the hands of the
American ego-psychologists and of Anna
Freud's followers was, according to
Lacan, an attempt to adapt psychoanalysis
to the cultural conformism of the present
epoch. By translating Freud's maxim on
the task of psychoanalysis, `Wo Es war,
soll Ich werden', in conformity with the
ideals of enlightenment reason that is,
that the unconscious is to be made conscious the American model presented
an idealistic and deceptive view that
patients might free themselves from all


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

constraint. In contrast, Lacan showed little

interest in issues of adaptation, nor in
debates about mental health. He instead
challenged the defenders of adaptational
psychoanalysis by translating Freud's
sentence as `Where it was, there I must
be', thus granting primacy to the unconscious. The unconscious, Lacan argued,
precedes `I'.
Informing this reading of Freud was
Lacan's structural recasting of the psyche,
consisting of three terms or orders the
imaginary, the symbolic, and the real.
Lacan included in the category of the imaginary the paradoxes, illusions, and
deceptions of the optical image; narcissism and its connection with doubles; as
well as the death drive and anxieties of
fragmentation and disintegration. The
category of the symbolic included all the
reworking of theory he had undertaken
through an engagement with structural
linguistics, including language and its
founding of the unconscious, symbolic
spacing through difference, and the primacy of the signier. The order of the
real was derived from Freud's discussion
of psychical reality, and, while redened
several times throughout Lacan's career,
was equated with that which resists
mirror-play and all attempts at symbolization. Let us now turn to consider
Lacan's structural account of the psyche
in more detail.
The mirror stage and misrecognition
There are two, essentially contrasting,
conceptions of the genesis of the ego in
Freud's writings. The rst conception
equates the ego as a representative of
reality-testing, making it responsible for
the control of unconscious drives and
passion. Freud elaborated this conception
in the early part of his career, and in it the
ego is understood as a product of the
gradual differentiation of the unconscious-preconscious-conscious
The second conception, elaborated by
Freud after his introduction of the concept of narcissism in the metapsychological papers of 1915, locates the genesis

of the ego in terms of projection and

identication. It is this second conception
of the ego that Lacan adopts, focusing on
the ego's structuring by means of representations derived from the other. In his
1949 paper `The mirror stage as formative
of the function of the I', Lacan advances
the thesis of the self-deception of the ego
by considering the infant identifying with
a mirror image of a complete unied body.
Following closely Freud's proposition that
the ego is fundamentally narcissistic in
character, as well as his insight that a
period of self-love precedes the objectlove of the Oedipus complex, Lacan
notes that the infant is initially unable to
differentiate between its own body and
the outside world. The key moment of
this pre-Oedipal state of being is that of
fragmentation, of an endless array of
part objects, all of which collide with
multiplex drives and passions. The
infant's drafting of a distinction between
itself and the outside between the age of
six and 18 months, says Lacan, takes place
within the paradoxes and illusions of
the visual eld, or what he calls the
mirror stage. As a metaphorical and structural concept, the mirror provides the subject with relief from the experience of
fragmentation, by granting an illusory
sense of bodily unity through its reecting
surface. As Lacan (1977: 12) develops this:
unable as yet to walk, or even to stand up, and
held tightly as he is by some support, human or
articial . . . he nevertheless overcomes in a utter
of jubilant activity, the obstruction of his support
and, xing his attitude in a slightly leaning-forward position, in order to hold it in his gaze,
brings back an instantaneous aspect of the image.

Note that Lacan stresses that the image is

cast within the eld of optics: it is in and
through a reecting surface that the subject
narcissistically invests its self-image. This
contrasts radically with other psychoanalytic conceptions of mirroring, such as the
work of D.W. Winnicott, who views early
interchanges between self and others as
crucial to the founding of a `true' self. It
also contrasts with other social theorists of
intersubjectivity, such as Cooley, who

Jacques Lacan

wrote of a `looking glass self' that exists in

relation to the gaze of others.
Lacan situates the constitution of the
ego in a line of ction. The ego is created
as defensive armour to support the psyche
against its otherwise terrifying experiences of fragmentation and dread. The
capture of the self or `I' by the subject's
reection in the mirror is inseparable
from what Lacan terms misrecognition of
its own truth (meconnaissance). The mirror
stage is profoundly imaginary in character, argues Lacan, because the consoling
image of self-unity presented in the mirror
is diametrically opposed to the multiplicity of drives and desires experienced by
the child. In a word, the mirror lies. This
process of misrecognition, Lacan writes,
situates the agency of the ego, before its social
determination, in a ctional direction, which will
always remain irreducible for the individual
alone, or rather, which will only rejoin the coming-into-being of the subject asymptotically, whatever the success of the dialectical syntheses by
which he must resolve his discordance with his
own reality. (Lacan, 1977: 2)

Language, Symbolic Order and the

Having argued that the ego is a paranoid
structure, an agent of misconstruction and
misrecognition, Lacan set out to show that
the subject is also divided through its
insertion into a symbolic order of positions in relation to other subjects.
Through an engagement with Ferdinand
de Saussure's Course in General Linguistics
and Claude Levi-Strauss's The Elementary
Structures of Kinship, Lacan arrived at a
structuralist theory of the subject in
which the concepts of signier, system,
otherness and difference gure prominently. The central texts in which he elaborates this antihumanist or structuralscientic conception of psychoanalysis
are `The eld and function of speech and
language in psychoanalysis' (1953) and
`The agency of the letter in the unconscious, or reason since Freud' (1957), both
published in Ecrits (1977).


In setting out his idea that the human

subject, and hence by implication culture
and society, is dominated by the primacy
of language, Lacan drew from and refashioned Saussure's theory of the arbitrary
nature of the linguistic sign. The importance that Saussure placed upon the status
of oppositions upon not things themselves but on the relationship between
things appealed to Lacan's psychoanalytic and structuralist sensibilities.
Saussure, as well as the analysis of language developed by Roman Jacobson,
provided Lacan with the means to bridge
his theoretical concerns with both symbolic production and the formal organization of desire. He argued in his seminar,
following Saussure, that the linguistic sign
comprises two parts: the signier (the
acoustic component or linguistic mark)
and the signied (the conceptual element). In line with structuralist thought,
Lacan argued that the relationship
between signiers and signieds is arbitrary. The meaning of signiers 'man',
for example is dened by difference, in
this case by the signier 'woman'.
However, where Saussure placed the
signied over the signier, Lacan inverts
the formula, putting the signied under
the signier, to which he ascribed primacy
in the life of the psyche, subject, and
society. All is determined for Lacan by
the movement of signiers. In fact, the
position of each of us as individual subjects is determined by our place in the
system of signiers, our lives are negotiated through the plane of enunciation.
The signier represents the subject for
Lacan; the primacy of the signier in the
constitution of the subject indicates the
rooting of the unconscious in language.
The idea that language might be a product of the unconscious was widespread
among many analysts, and indeed
Lacan continually afrmed in his writings
and seminars that the importance he
placed upon language was in keeping
with the spirit of Freud's corpus. However, Lacan's structuralist elaboration of
Saussure is, in fact, a radical conceptual
departure from the Freudian conception


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

of the unconscious. Whereas Freud sees

connections between the psychic systems
of unconscious representation (fantasy)
and conscious thought (language), Lacan
views subjectivity itself as constituted to
its roots in language. This linguistication
of the unconscious has important ramications, making of this psychic strata not
something which is internal to the subject
(as with, say, a bodily heart or kidney), but
rather an intersubjective space of communication, with language constantly sinking
or fading into the gaps which separate
signier from signier. The unconscious,
writes Lacan, represents `the sum of the
effects of the parole on a subject, at the
level where the subject constitutes itself
from the effects of the signier' (Lacan
quoted in Ragland-Sullivan, 1986: 106)
Or, in Lacan's infamous slogan: `The
unconscious is structured like a language'.
If the unconscious is structured like a
language, as a chain of signiers, the
apparent stability of the mirror image of
the subject is alienated twice over. First,
the subject is alienated through the
mirrored deceptions of the imaginary
order, in which the ego is organized into
a paranoid structure; secondly, the person
is constituted as an I in the symbolic order,
an order or law indifferent to the desires
and emotions of individual subjects.
Language is thus the vehicle of speech
for the subject and a function of the
symbolic order, an order in which the
individual is subjected to received social
meanings, logic, and differentiation. It is
this conception of the function of the symbol which paves the way for Lacan's
incorporation of Levi-Strauss's structural
anthropology. Drawing upon LeviStrauss's conception of the unconscious
as a symbolic system of underlying relations which order social life, Lacan argues
that the rules of matrimonial exchange are
founded by a preferential order of kinship
which is constitutive of the social system:
The marriage tie is governed by an order of preference whose law concerning the kinship names
is, like language, imperative for the group in its
forms, but unconscious in its structure . . . The primordial Law is therefore that which in regulating

marriage ties superimposes the kingdom of culture on that of a nature abandoned to the law of
mating. . . This law, then, is revealed clearly
enough as identical with an order of language.
For without kinship nominations, no power is
capable of instituting the order of preferences and
taboos that bind and weave the yarn of lineage
through succeeding generations. (Lacan, 1977: 66)

This primordial Law to which Lacan

refers is the Freudian Oedipus complex,
now rewritten in linguistic terms. What
Lacan terms nom-du-pere (name-of-thefather) is the cornerstone of his structural
revision of the Oedipus complex. For
Lacan, as for Freud, the father intrudes
into the imaginary, blissful union of the
childmother dyad in a symbolic capacity,
as the representative of the wider cultural
network and the social taboo on incest. It
is, above all, the exteriority of this process
which Lacan underlines. Broadly speaking, Lacan is not arguing that each individual father forbids the motherinfant
unity. Rather he suggests the `paternal
metaphor' intrudes into the child's narcissistically structured ego to refer the child
to what is outside, to what has the force of
the law namely, language.


The political pessimism of Lacan's doctrines the distorting traps of the imaginary, the symbolic determination of the
subject, the lack or failure of desire has
proved attractive to many social theorists
and cultural analysts. His portrayal of the
ego as a paranoid structure has served as a
balance against conservative and liberal
theories that construct the self at the centre of rational psychological functioning.
Lacan, by contrast, stresses that the self
is always alienated from its own history,
is constituted in and through otherness,
and is inserted into a symbolic order as a
decentred subject. The theme of otherness
in particular is something that runs deep
in contemporary social thought, and
Lacan's reections on the strangeness
that mediates subjectivity and culture

Jacques Lacan

has been highly inuential across the

social sciences and the humanities.
However, Lacan's `return to Freud' has
also come under re by many social
theorists and cultural commentators. In
this section, I shall consider the case for
and against Lacan in social theory (see
also Macey, 1988; Elliott, 1994; Elliott and
Spezzano, 2000).
Lacanian and Post-Lacanian Social Theory
In the early 1930s, two maidservants of
humble origins viciously murdered their
wealthy employers in the town of Le
Mans in northwestern France. The celebrated crime of the Papin sisters both
shocked and gripped the French public
and press: it was reported as a tale of
class hatred, of social tension, of hysteria
and madness. On the day of the crime, a
power failure had prevented Christine
Papin from carrying out her household
duties, for which she was rmly rebuked
by her employer, Mme Lancelin. The sisters thereupon lashed out and attacked
the Lancelins, gouging out their victims'
eyes and cutting up their bodies. Jacques
Lacan, fascinated by the case of the Papin
sisters, suggested that while the crime was
undertaken against a backdrop of rising
social, economic, racial, and national
hatreds, another more structural
psychic force was at work: that of paranoid delusion and alienation. Elizabeth
Roudinesco, in her biography of the
French psychoanalyst, writes that Lacan
set out to show that only paranoia could explain
the mystery of the sisters' act. The episode of
insanity seemed to arise out of a seemingly everyday incident: a power failure. But this incident
might well have had an unconscious signicance
for the Papin sisters. Lacan suggested it stood for
the silence that had long existed between the mistresses and the maids: no current could ow
between the employers and their servants because
they didn't speak to one another. Thus the crime
triggered by the power failure was a violent acting
out of a non-dit: something unspoken, of whose
meaning the chief actors in the drama were unaware. (Roudinesco, 1997: 634)

Although many years prior to the formalization of his psychoanalytical account of


the imaginary, symbolic, and real orders,

Lacan presents the crime of the Papin sisters primarily in terms of an interweaving
of language, symbolism, the unconscious
and paranoid alienation.
Lacan, as his reections on the case of
the Papin sisters illustrates, was profoundly interested in the links between
the individual and society. Yet however
deeply engaged by the connections
between psychoanalysis, philosophy, and
contemporary theory, Lacan failed to
develop an account of the relevance of
his theories to social life in any detailed
fashion. As a psychoanalyst, he was preoccupied by other (clinical and institutional) issues. On the other hand, he was
aware of (and followed with great interest) the many attempts by others to bring
Lacanian theory to bear upon issues of
pressing social, cultural, and political
importance. The Marxist Louis Althusser,
a friend of Lacan's, was among the rst
social theorists to argue for the importance of Lacanian theory to the development of a theory of ideology. By bridging
Marxist and Lacanian theory, Althusser
sought to challenge traditional conceptions of ideology as a set of false beliefs
or illusions. For Althusser, the view that
social practices are real, while the ideas
and beliefs which sustain them are simply
false illusions, mistakenly assumes that
ideology is imaginary in only a passive
sense, as a weak copy of the structures of
our social practice. In breaking from the
imaginary/real opposition of traditional
Marxism, where the former stands as a
sort of ethereal medium which veils real
political and economic structures,
Althusser argues that the imaginary is
embodied in the relations to the real that
are organized and sustained through
ideology. Ideology is the imaginary relation
of individuals to their real conditions of
social existence. This imaginary dimension
of ideology, which Althusser develops
from Lacan's Freud, is not understood as
some kind of private space internal to individuals. Rather, Althusser emphasizes that
the imaginary dimensions of ideology
exist on the `outside', but are continually


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

woven through us as an effect of subjective positioning. He denes this process as

All ideology represents in its necessarily imaginary distortion is not the existing relations of production (and the other relations that derive from
them), but above all the (imaginary) relationship
of individuals to the relations of production and
the relations that derive from them. What is represented in ideology is therefore not the system of
real relations which govern the existence of
individuals, but the imaginary relation of these
individuals to the real relations in which they live.
(Althusser, 1984: 389)

On this view, then, ideology is the social

cement of human society. It positions
human subjects at a place where ideological meanings are constituted, and thereby
structures the real organization of social
relations. It establishes, in sum, the unconscious dimensions by which subjects come
to `live out' their real relation to society.
Althusser, commonly regarded as the
founder of applied Lacanian doctrine,
promoted a structuralist approach to
issues of subjectivity, agency, and ideology in the social sciences. Consideration
of the status of subjectivity, and especially
the notion of the decentring of the subject,
became widespread across disciplines
concerned with the study of human activity. In the writings of Pierre Machery,
Etienne Balibar, Stuart Hall, Fredric
Jameson, Paul Hirst, and Barry Hindess,
to name only a few, the Lacanian/
Althusserian framework gured prominently in addressing key political issues
such as nationalism, race, ethnicity, and
class. Debate over the specular structure
of ideology raised important issues concerning the creative capabilities of
human subjects. To what extent Lacanian
theory dissolved the subject in social analysis generated considerable controversy
in social theory. Some argued that the
decentring of the subject is formally
equivalent to its disappearance, a conceptual move that mirrors the decline of the
individual brought about by contemporary social change (see, for example,
Giddens, 1979). Others argued that
the subject is not desubjectivized in

Lacanian theory in such a thoroughgoing

Lacan's inuence is also strongly evident in the study of culture, especially
popular culture. Cultural and media studies throughout the 1980s and 1990s has
indicated a considerable Lacanian debt,
specically in the eld of cinema studies.
The writings of Stephen Heath, Christian
Metz, Laura Mulvey and Teresa De
Lauretis, among others, have drawn
from Lacanian theory to analyse the complex, contradictory ways in which spectatorsubject positions are constituted, as
well as rearticulated, in relation to symbolic systems. Perhaps the most vibrant
deployment of Lacanian theory for the
analysis of popular culture can be found
in the writings of the Slovenian critic
Slavoj Zizek (1989, 1991). Seeking to
extend Lacanian criticism beyond such
notions as the symbolic positioning of
the subject, Zizek relates the imaginary
and symbolic elds to Lacan's order of
the real to produce a highly original
account of the traumatic and disruptive
aspects of human subjectivity. In Zizek,
the real is portrayed as that which erupts
at the edge of the mirror, as a leftover of
the symbolic order, a leftover which
returns to derail intersubjective draftings
of identity construction and cultural
The most fruitful area of engagement
with Lacan's Freud, however, has
occurred in feminist studies. Many feminists have turned to Lacanian theory to
advance political debate on issues of subjectivity, gender, and sexual difference.
Here there is a key stress on the role of
symbolic forms in the constitution of the
self and thus of gender. The symbolic
order, language, the Name-of-the-Father,
the phallus as transcendental signier:
these are the signature concepts through
which Lacanian and post-Lacanian feminists analyse asymmetrical power relations
of gender and sexuality. `There is no
woman', says Lacan (1975), `but excluded
from the value of words'. What Lacan
means by this pessimistic reading of gender relationships is that, in patriarchal

Jacques Lacan

societies, femininity always remains on

the outside of language and power. In contemporary culture, the phallus comes to
be identied with the penis and hence
with male power. Woman functions in
the symbolic order of language as
excluded Other, lack, negativity. Lurking
within this apparently rigid, phallocentric
organization of sexual difference, however, Lacan discerns something more
uid and ambivalent. Since human subjects are split at the core, radically divided
between the narcissistic traps of the imaginary and the unconscious ruptures of
the symbolic order, so too gender determination is always open to displacement. In
short, if femininity is constituted in relation to otherness, this is an otherness that
threatens to outstrip the foundations of
sexual difference.
It will be apparent that there are two
dominant, and competing, strands in
Lacan's psychoanalytic interpretation of
sexual difference. The rst stresses the
symbolic determination of the subject;
the second highlights the fracturing
effects of the unconscious upon phallic
organizations of language and culture.
Not surprisingly, it is also possible to discern these different emphases of Lacan's
approach to sexual difference in much
feminist social theory. An emphasis
upon the symbolic determination of the
subject, for example, is strongly evident
in Juliet Mitchell's pathbreaking book,
Psychoanalysis and Feminism (1974).
Arguing that feminism must found its
utopic vision upon a full examination of
the most distressing and painful elements
of gender relations, Mitchell deftly situates the relevance of Lacan's Freud in
relation to social theory. `If psychoanalysis is phallocentric', writes Mitchell
(1984: 274) in a subsequent book of
essays, Women: The Longest Revolution,
`it is because the human social order
that it perceives refracted through the
individual human subject is patrocentric.
To date, the father stands in the position
of the third term that must break the
asocial dyadic unit of mother and child'.
Of course, everything hangs on the


projected time-frame of `to date'; certainly,

Mitchell's work has been sharply criticized for its deterministic and ahistorical
approach to issues of gender power. By
contrast, in the writings of Julia Kristeva,
Luce Irigaray, and Helene Cixous it is possible to discern a more critical stance
towards Lacan's deterministic account of
the symbolic positioning of gendered subjectivity. Indeed, this brand of feminism
might be described as `neo-Lacanian' or
`post-Lacanian', primarily because a
more positive image of femininity is
evoked. As Cixous (1980: 262) takes aim
at Lacan, `What's a desire originating
from lack? A pretty meagre desire'. By
contrast, the vital feminist task is to
explore and valorize women's difference
from men in order to go beyond the
repressive connes of phallocentric culture. In the work of Irigaray and Cixous,
this has involved a reconsideration of the
affective dimensions of female sexual
pleasure in which Lacan's writings and
seminars have gured as both inspiration
and limitation. In the writings of Kristeva,
the importance of Lacan's thought consists primarily in certain major themes
which she draws from and reworks:
themes including the narcissistic lures of
the imaginary, the centrality of language
to gender spacing through difference, and
the mutations of the symbolic order.
Critique of Lacan
Notwithstanding Lacan's considerable
contributions to contemporary social theory, his rereading of Freud has failed to
generate the revolution in philosophical
understanding to problems of subjectivity,
intersubjectivity, and culture which
once was routinely asserted by Lacanianorientated social theorists. There are three
core respects, I argue, in which Lacan's
psychoanalytic thought is particularly
decient, especially when considered in
the light of the typical preoccupations of
social theory with the relations between
self and society.
First, while Lacan's conception of the
imaginary is of great interest to social


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

theory, it is associated too closely with the

logic of the specular (see Elliott, 1992:
chapter 4); the idea that the imaginary is
only constituted when the self is reected
as an object fails to grasp the point that it is
the psyche which elaborates and invests
this specular image. How, after all, does
the small infant come to (mis)recognize
itself in the mirror? How, exactly,
does the individual subject cash in on
this conferring of an ideal self, however
brittle or illusory? These difculties are
especially well illuminated in Cornelius
Castoriadis's critique of Lacan. Rejecting
the standpoint that the imaginary is born
from a specular image which is somehow
`already there', Castoriadis rather contends that the production of images and
forms actually is the work of the imaginary. In his words:

Secondly, there are major substantive

and political problems with Lacan's contention that the unconscious/conscious
dualism should be conceptualized as a linguistic relation. Many critics, including
Paul Ricoeur, Jean-Francois Lyotard, and
Jean Laplanche, have argued the Freudian
point against Lacan that the unconscious
is resistant to ordered syntax. Against this
linguistication of the psyche, we need to
return to Freud's account of the unconscious, a realm of the psyche which, he

The imaginary does not come from the image in

the mirror or from the gaze of the other. Instead,
the `mirror' itself and its possibility, and the other
as mirror, are the works of the imaginary, which is
creation ex nihilo. Those who speak of the `imaginary', understanding by this the `specular', the
reection of the `ctive', do no more than repeat,
usually without realizing it, the afrmation which
has for all time chained them to the underground
of the famous cave: it is necessary that this world
be an image of something. (Castoriadis, 1987: 3)

This `new form' of which Freud speaks,

and explicitly contrasts with waking
thought and language, concerns representation: the ux of desires and fantasies in
which things strange and unknown make
themselves felt at the level of psychic
Thirdly, the politics of Lacanianism has
often been criticized for its determinism
and pessimism (see Castoriadis, 1984;
Frosh, 1987; Elliott, 1994). Certainly,
Lacan's structuralist leanings led him to
underscore the symbolic determination
of the subject. `Symbols', he writes (1977:
68), `envelop the life of man in a network
so total that they join together, before he
comes into the world, those who are going
to engender him ``by esh and blood''; so
total that they will bring to his birth . . . the
shape of his destiny'. Lacan's view that
the subject enters a symbolic order
which is prestructured linguistically, and
in which the law appears terroristic, creates immense difculties for theorizing
human agency and the creative dimensions of subjective and intersubjective
life. Whereas Freud, in his own decentring
of the ego, at least posits the subject's
prospects for critical self-reection and
autonomy, Lacan sees the self as a complete distortion, a defensive structure.

For Castoriadis, the argument that the ego

is constituted through a misrecognition of
its reected image fundamentally ignores
the point that it is the psyche which invests
the `mirror' with desire. The problem with
Lacan's position is that surely for an individual to begin to recognize its reected
image in the `mirror' it must already
possess the imaginary capacities for identication and representation, or what
Freud named psychical reality. In the
end, Castoriadis argues, Lacan's theory
palpably cannot account for the psychical
processes by which mirror images are
created and formed. That is to say, Lacan's
account of specular identity fails to
address how it comes about that the
other as mirror is perceived as real
how the reected object is rendered
intelligible to the subject.

is not simply more careless, more irrational, more

forgetful and more incomplete than waking
thought; it is completely different from it qualitatively and for that reason not immediately comparable with it. It [the unconscious] does not
think, calculate or judge in any way at all; it
restricts itself to giving things a new form.
(Freud, [1900] 193574: 507)

Jacques Lacan

According to Lacan, the structure of

human knowledge is delusional through
and through, with the imaginary order
offering a misleading promise of selfunity on the one side, and the symbolic
and real orders operating antagonistically
on the other. As has been noted by
Castoriadis and others, however, there
are major epistemological difculties
with Lacan's account, including the
central issue of paranoid delusion and its
innite regress. For if the imaginary is a
specular trap, the law omnipotent, and the
symbolic order a mask for lack and loss,
how exactly is the subject to know when
something of value or substance has ever
been found? How is a meaningful relationship with the outside world to be
forged, let alone transformed (as with
the practice of psychoanalysis)? And
what of the theorist or social scientist?
Are all claims to knowledge punctured
by the illusory traps of the imaginary
and its hall of mirrors? What of Lacan's
discourse? If truth is inconceivable, communication paradoxical and endlessly
problematic, and general social theories
authoritarian, how to assess the master's
pronouncements? Of course, this is precisely why Lacan formulated his theorems
in such cryptic and elusive terms: in order
to give full vent to the skidding signiers
of the unconscious. But there must be
serious reservations about such claims,
primarily because issues of self-actualization and critical self-reection remain
unaddressed in Lacan's work.


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Althusser, L. (1984): `Ideological and ideological state
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of Jacques Lacan. London: Free Association Books.
Borch-Jacobsen, M. (1991) Lacan: The Absolute Master.
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Bowie, M. (1991) Lacan. London: Fontana.
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Castoriadis, C. (1984) Crossroads in the Labyrinth.
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Marks and I. de Courtivron (eds), New French
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Freud, S. (193574) The Standard Edition of the

Complete Psychological Works of Sigmund Freud.
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Mitchell, J. (1974) Psychoanalysis and Feminism.
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Jacques Derrida



acques Derrida was born in Algeria in

July 1930. His education was severely
disrupted in the early 1940s by the
draconian measures taken during the
Second World War to exclude Jews from
schools dedicated to Aryans, but in 1949
he left Algeria for Paris, and studied at the
Lycee Louis le Grand until 1952, when he
entered the Ecole Normale Superieure
(ENS) of the rue d'Ulm as a philosophy
student. There he met his future wife,
Marguerite Aucouturier, whom he married in 1957, and Louis Althusser, also
from Algiers, who was already a tutor at
the Ecole, and with whom he formed a
life-long friendship. In the same year he
passed the Agregation, and won a scholarship to Harvard, to work on unpublished
writings by Husserl. But his emergent
philosophical career was to be further
interrupted by two years military service
back in Algeria as a teacher of French and
English to children of the forces in Kolea.
His return to France in 1959, and most
especially the now famous conference
paper on genesis and structure in
Husserl, delivered in Cerisy-la-Salle,
marks the moment at which the career of

Jacques Derrida, certainly one of the most

original and inuential philosophers of
his generation, seems to come into focus
and enter the public domain, leaving
behind the intimacy of a colonial childhood and a complicated and fragmented
education. This is not the place to speculate on the role played by Derrida's early
years in his later political, ethical, and
philosophical choices, but his position
as part of both French colonial rule and a
racially persecuted minority cannot but
have contributed to his radical questioning
of identity and, more recently, to his passionate concern for democracy and justice.
In fact, Derrida's philosophical career
was to soar quickly to impressive heights.
Four years' teaching in the Sorbonne
(19604), trips to Prague, the JeanCavailles 'epistemology' prize for his
rst book the translation of and introduction to Husserl's Origin of Geometry,
publications in Critique and Tel Quel, and
in 1964 a teaching post at the ENS, all give
clear indications of Derrida's early success. And 1966 marked the start of his
extraordinary celebrity, with the now
notorious conference on `The Ends of
Man' in Johns Hopkins, Baltimore, the
paper on `La differance' in the Sorbonne,
and the simultaneous publication in 1967


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

of three major texts: De la Grammatologie,

L'Ecriture et la difference, and La Voix et le
Derrida's philosophical approach is particularly hard to categorize, for a variety of
reasons, not least because much of his best
work constitutes a critique of other texts,
philosophical, political, literary, or psychoanalytic. The term most readily associated with his writings, `deconstruction',
was, he explains (1987b: 388), chosen by
him from Littre to translate Heidegger's
Destruktion and Abbau, both of which
imply a dismantling but not a destruction
of the traditional organizing concepts of
Western ontology and metaphysics.
When he chose the term he can have had
little idea of the importance it would later
assume for his later thinking. Derrida's
early work was primarily concerned
with a critique of Husserl and phenomenology. Soon Heidegger, Hegel, Nietzsche,
Plato, Freud, Levinas, Rousseau, Foucault,
Levi-Strauss, Mallarme, amongst many
others, were to become objects of his
deconstructive analysis. Deconstruction
has been described as a form of `close
reading', and to an extent the description
is correct, if inadequate. Deconstruction
does indeed read closely and minutely: it
disentangles the knots and conations of
hasty or specious argumentation, it
uncovers what may have been concealed,
it focuses on marginalia and footnotes,
in the expectation that what has been
relegated to the margins may prove
paradoxically central to a less parochial
understanding of the text. Deconstruction reads between the lines and against
the grain; it joins in the play in the linguistic mechanism, but not in the sense of the
`free-play' sometimes attributed to deconstruction by Derrida's opponents, or
indeed his less rigorous followers. It
involves especially the demonstration of
textual self-contradiction, again not
merely in the traditional philosophical
sense of nding aws in the logic of an
opponent's argument, but rather in the
sense of teasing out the underlying incompatibility between what writers believe
themselves to be arguing and what the

text actually says. This gap between

authorial intention and textual meanings
is a key focus of deconstruction, and gives
the lie most forcibly to those who try to
argue that Derrida is not interested in
authorial intention. On the contrary, it is
one of his prime fascinations, along with
all the tricks of language, logic, and metaphysics that interfere with the expression
of that intention, distort it and deviate it,
and sometimes cause writers to say precisely the opposite of what they (thought
they) intended.
Derrida's early work is, then, devoted
primarily to a reconsideration of phenomenology. This is closely followed by a critique of structuralism, especially through
Levi-Strauss, and of structural linguistics
through Saussure. Other linguistic
threads are followed with (and sometimes
against) Jakobson, Benveniste, Ricoeur,
Austin, and Searle. Derrida's fascination
with language is probably at its most evident, and perhaps its most playful, in the
essays of the 1970s devoted to literary writers who are themselves ludic rather than
logical: Genet, Sollers, Artaud, Joyce, and
poet-wordsmiths such as Mallarme,
Baudelaire, or Ponge. The latest phase of
Derrida's development is his concern with
psychoanalysis, ethics, and politics, foregrounded since the 1980s, but in fact
already apparent in his earliest essays of
the 1960s, such as those on Freud, Bataille,
and Levinas. This is the aspect of
Derrida's thought which is of most
immediate relevance to social theory,
though his studies of phenomenology,
structuralism, language, and literature
are all part of the deconstructive enterprise, and have an essential contribution
to make in the theoretical domain, in particular in their problematization of identity, expression, intention, and meaning.
Derrida is clearly a philosopher rather
than a social theorist, but his philosophy,
like any major epistemological shift, has

Jacques Derrida

radical implications for theories of the

social. From the outset, in his earliest
work on phenomenology, Derrida's conception of consciousness implied a view
of human subjectivity as radical as
that of structuralism, while being so
well-grounded and so nely argued
philosophically that it could not be easily
dismissed or overlooked. Phenomenology
was, in the rst half of the twentieth
century, a force to be reckoned with:
its ambitions were radical, it set out to
revolutionize epistemology, psychology,
and ultimately science, and Derrida's
engagement with it is serious and tenacious. Phenomenology is a philosophy of
consciousness which sets out to avoid
both empiricism and idealism by rethinking the fundamental distinction between
subject and object. Consciousness, according to phenomenology, is always directed
outside itself to the world in a relationship
of intentionality. Phenomenology, Husserl
argued, involves a rejection of the `natural
attitude of experience and thought' (1967:
43) and an attempt to purify consciousness of the contingencies of psychology
and empiricism in order ultimately to
observe the essences of `transcendental'
(i.e. not individual) consciousness.
Derrida studied phenomenology in
Paris with Levinas and Ricoeur. He considers Husserl to have been one of the
major inuences on his thinking, and
much of his philosophical work seems to
spring from his critique of and engagement with phenomenology. The major
Derrida's view, comes from its attempt to
ground knowledge in experience, evidence and self-presence. Its failure is due
not to the inadequacy of its execution, but
rather to the fact that it is based on false
and misguided premises. Derrida's MA
dissertation in 1954 and his rst two published books all deal with Husserl: the
translation and study of The Origin of
Geometry in 1962, and in 1967, Speech
and Phenomena: Introduction to the problem
of the sign in the philosophy of Husserl.
Phenomenology, in Derrida's view of it,
is both a critique of metaphysics and a


participant in the metaphysical enterprise.

It cannot avoid entrapment in the system
it is setting out to criticize. Husserl's
attempt most notably to preserve the
purity of the self-presence of consciousness in the face of its apparent contamination by external elements such as
indication or communication is undermined, in Derrida's view, by its own arguments. Husserl deludes himself when he
imagines that consciousness is pure,
unmediated self-presence without need
of representation. Derrida's argument
proceeds via an analysis of the implications of the phenomenological conception
of temporality which he shows to be selfcontradictory and self-destructive. In a
ne analysis, too closely textual to be susceptible of easy summary, Derrida reveals
the ssuring inherent in the present
moment, and the concomitant ssuring
of self-presence in consciousness itself.
Abstract though it may perhaps seem,
this question of the self-division of consciousness is probably the single most
important argument for Derrida's whole
deconstructive endeavour, since its farreaching implications undermine so
many of the assumptions of philosophy,
and not only of phenomenology. The
self-identity of the human subject, for
example, cannot survive the ssuring of
its mainstay, consciousness. What else
can guarantee subjective identity if consciousness itself is not self-identical?
And so much else will necessarily follow
the fall of the subject, in a tumbling
house-of-cards where language, communication, intersubjectivity of course, the
subjectobject division, and ultimately all
representation and knowledge of the
world that supposes a knowing subject
will lose their foundation in the postnuclear landscape of deconstruction
(1967c: 13).
Derrida's reections on language also
start in his study of Husserl; rst in the
work on The Origin of Geometry where
Derrida takes Husserl to task for the contradictions enshrined in his theory of the
historicity of ideal objects. For Husserl,
ideal objects such as the concepts of


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

geometry have their origin in human

thought rather than in nature, but they
are not located in space or time and do
not depend on any particular human subject. They emerge rather from a process of
idealization and imagination which marks
a form of nonpersonalized intellectual
progress. It will already be clear that
Husserl is on treacherous terrain, and
Derrida focuses in particular on his conception of the role of language in the
understanding and transmission of the
concepts of mathematics and science. For
Husserl, linguistic objectivation and
mathematical symbolization are an occasion for alienation and degradation. In
other words, the language of mathematics
to some extent masks its truth in its
purest form; even apparently fundamental axioms are surrounded by a `sedimentation of meaning' that separates them
from their `origin' (1962: 44). But of
course, Derrida argues, it is language
and in particular writing, that creates
an autonomous transcendental eld in
the rst place, an ideal objective meaning,
independent of any singular subject.
Husserl describes failure, misunderstanding, and noncommunication as merely
contingent and dependent on empirical
weakness; for Derrida they constitute
part of the very conditions of possibility
of objectivity. What Husserl wants to relativize as nonessential is for Derrida fundamental to the nature of the historical
transmission of ideas and may be radical.
Failure is part of a nitude which can
never be entirely overcome.
This debate over the status of language
in mathematics is, like Derrida's critique
of Husserl's conception of temporality,
highly technical. But its consequences are
radical. If language is not extraneous to
the concepts it conveys, but rather an
inalienable part of them, if it is not merely
the husk of ideas which transcend it, then
the view of language as a mere transmitter
of pre-existing thought becomes untenable. Husserl's conception of language is
one of the major subjects of Derrida's
attention in Speech and Phenomena,
devoted to Husserl's theory of the sign,

and the work may be seen in some

respects as a generalization of the ideas
previously explored in the domain of
mathematics and geometry. Husserl's
position as a phenomenologist is that in
the innermost self-presence of consciousness language is inessential and, if present,
as for example in interior monologue, it
will necessarily teach nothing to the subject who is engaged in it. Derrida disagrees and, as so often, uses Husserl's
own ideas to refute him. The nature of
the sign, in Husserl's account of it, is to
be repeatable and representative. It is
these very features that Derrida uses to
undermine the vital distinctions Husserl
needs to maintain between ideal and
real, ctive and effective, exterior and
interior. Husserl's argument is that consciousness is deluded when it imagines
it can communicate with itself. Derrida
reverses this, as we have seen, to argue
that it is Husserl who is deluded when
he imagines that consciousness is pure,
unmediated self-presence and that it has
no need of any kind of representation.
The impossibility of pure self-presence
and the problematization of attempts to
argue for uncontaminated originality in
domains as apparently diverse as consciousness and geometry are probably
amongst the best-known features of
Derrida's thinking, especially in their relationship to language, speech and writing.
Derrida's refutation, most famously in Of
Grammatology, of the priority of speech
over writing has been widely publicized,
and frequently dismissed and misunderstood, at least by those too impatient to
read any more than second-hand accounts
of his ideas. Derrida, of course, does not
claim that humankind developed writing,
in the usual sense of the term, before it
developed speech. Such a claim would
be particularly difcult to sustain, though
we might note, with Derrida, that the linguist Hjelmslev himself reminds us that
the discovery of alphabetic language is
hidden in prehistory, citing a remark of
Bertrand Russell, not noted for his contribution to deconstruction, to the effect that
it is impossible to know for certain

Jacques Derrida

whether the oldest form of human expression was spoken or written (1967b). Be
that as it may, Derrida's claim is rather
that all the features most commonly associated with writing, that is inscription,
repeatability, conventionality, are equally
to be found in speech. Derrida's term
`archi-ecriture' refers to all these features
common to both speech and writing,
but which are denied and repressed in
theories that have an investment in
maintaining the natural and unmediated
nature of the spoken word. Moreover,
speech and writing are too different for
writing to be deemed a mere transcription
of speech, as is more immediately evident
when nonphonetic writing systems such
as ideograms and hieroglyphs are
Derrida argues, then, that the enshrined
common-sense view that writing represents speech, and that speech represents
thought; and its corollary, that such representation necessarily involves a degree of
alienation of the original thought, is mistaken. For Derrida, I never express exactly
what I intend, not because language or
writing deviates my intention, but rather
because there never was a pure, original
intention, or thought, present to my consciousness, pre-existing its linguistic
expression, and progressively distorted
in its successive representations. On the
contrary, the apparent self-presence of
consciousness is not so much a mark of
self-identity, but rather of self-division,
and even at its most archaic level thought
is `impure' and, to use Artaud's terms,
`stolen' from me by others (Derrida,
1967c). Such a view of consciousness, subjectivity, thought, and language clearly
has immense implications for any theory
of communication and, necessarily, for
any theory of the social. If we are not
self-identical, self-present subjects, and if
we do not ever fully communicate what
we think we intend, then there is no way
in which many of the great social aims
could ever be fully realized. Common projects will necessarily founder if they presume self-identical subjects working
together with self-understanding and


self-transparency, not merely because of

human weakness and failure to achieve
the aims set in their purity, but because
the `subjects' themselves do not correspond to their presumed identity. One conclusion that could be drawn from this is
deeply pessimistic: divided subjects,
unable to know or understand the world
fully, lacking even the possibility of achieving self-knowledge, will not, a fortiori, be
able to construct a better society. Such is,
indeed, the nihilistic position attributed to
Derrida, or allegedly derived from his
thinking, by many of his self-styled
humanist critics. However, it is the exact
antithesis of Derrida's own position.
On the contrary, in Derrida's view, it is
precisely our lack of self-identity as subjects that makes ethics, and consequently
Responsibility, for Derrida, and the taking
of responsible decisions, would not be
possible, or even thinkable, for a self-identical subject, for such self-identity would
preclude substantial change and predetermine all outcomes (1994a: 45, 53). Much of
Derrida's most explicit thinking on these
issues is to be found in his publications of
the last dozen years such as De l'esprit:
Heidegger et la question (1987), Force de loi
(1994a), Politiques de l'amitie (1994b),
Spectres de Marx (1993a), Adieu (1997a)
and Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore un
effort! (1997b), but its foundations are laid
far earlier in texts such as the 1964 essay
on Levinas, `Violence and metaphysics',
or Of Grammatology (1967b). One of the
key terms Derrida uses in this context is
that of the `promise'. The promise has a
very special structure, that of futurity,
and also of commitment to the future.
The promise will never come about as a
future state, but that does not invalidate it;
on the contrary, like nonself-identity, it is
what frees us from essence, hypostasis,
and stagnation. The promise is what
enables us to conceive, perhaps even to tolerate, but also importantly to narrow, the
gap, for example, between law and justice.
Law aims at justice but is never identical
with it; nor could it be, given that law is
precisely the attempt to understand and


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

enshrine what is just, but its very enshrining necessarily comes between the ideal
and the real by subjecting the ideal to the
laws of empirical cases. The promise is
also, Derrida maintains, the structure of
democracy, for democracy too is an ideal
which, in all attempts to enact it, encounters perpetual internal contradictions and
conicts which will always impede its full
realization. The danger, Derrida argues,
lies not in the recognition that full democracy will never be achieved in any state, or
perfect justice in any legal system, but
rather in the illusion that either is possible,
or worse, already achieved. Such illusions
are not merely mistaken, they encourage a
counterproductive social and historical
complacency and a potentially pernicious
misunderstanding of other political or
juridical models.
Derrida's work is nothing if not controversial. The controversies include the wellknown debate (which may appear more
like a dialogue de sourds) with Searle
over Austin and his theory of performatives, the violent conict surrounding the
pro-Nazi sympathies of Heidegger and
the alleged anti-Semitism of Paul de
Man, but also less transparently political
questions associated with some of
Derrida's more gnomic pronouncements
such as `il n'y a pas de hors-texte' (`there
is nothing outside the text') or even his
theory of metaphor. We will look at some
of these issues briey, but a general point
needs to be made rst: in so far as deconstruction sets out to question prevailing
orthodoxy in philosophy, theories of language, psychoanalysis, ethics, or politics it
will necessarily disturb and sometimes
distress. Derrida enjoys writing, he
relishes the stunning effect his more
radical statements may have on his conservative critics, he takes visible pleasure
in the cut-and-thrust of debate, but, like
the most solemn of his critics, he tries to
say what he means and he means what he

says. His writing is not generally difcult

or obscure just for the sake of it. Like
Lacan, Derrida does not want to be read
`en oblique', that is to say with a hasty
glance down the page, his writing
requires time for reection, and it does
not always receive it. Hence the vast number of misrepresentations of his ideas
which may seem bewildering to anyone
who has genuinely read his writings in
their original, nonsimplied form.
A case in point is his skirmish with
Habermas. Habermas takes Searle's side
in the disagreement over Austin and performatives. The debate starts in 1971 when
Derrida gave a paper entitled Signature
Evenement Contexte devoted to Austin's
speech-act theory. This has been discussed
many times elsewhere (see, for example,
Howells, 1998: 6471), and I will not give
the details again here. What matters in this
context is that Derrida discusses Austin's
way of dealing with apparent exceptions
to the rules of his theory, and argues, as
we have seen him do for Husserl, and
indeed as he will do on many other occasions, that it is paradoxically the excluded
exceptions which provide a way in to a
better understanding of the apparent
`rules', in this case of performatives. The
paper seems to have enraged one of
the best-known followers of Austin, the
philosopher John Searle, who retaliated
in 1977 in an article entitled `Reiterating
the differences: A Reply to Derrida',
which accuses Derrida of misrepresenting
Austin. Searle is direct and patronizing:
Derrida says things `that are obviously
false'; Searle lists `his major misunderstandings and mistakes' and claims that
`Derrida's Austin is unrecognizable'
(Searle, 1977: 83). But bizarrely, however
much right he may or may not have on his
side over Austin, Searle is clearly deeply
mistaken over Derrida, for he attributes to
him, almost systematically, views which
are the exact opposite of those he in fact
holds or argues. The most straightforward
and evident of these concerns the distinction between speech and writing. As
we have seen, Derrida is concerned to
problematize the simple speechwriting

Jacques Derrida

opposition, and to contest the prioritizing

of speech. Searle, however, seems to have
contrived to read otherwise, for he contemptuously dismisses Derrida's alleged
attempt to distinguish between speech
and writing using the criteria of iterability
and absence, which Searle rejects as
grounds for discrimation. We have, then,
the strange situation of Searle attributing
to Derrida the opposite of the views he
actually holds and using his own arguments to challenge him. What seems to
have happened is that Searle has failed
to distinguish between Derrida's initial
exposition of the ideas he intends to challenge, and the views he is himself proposing. Be this as it may, in The Philosophical
Discourse of Modernity, Habermas takes
Searle's side in the debate, explicitly
basing his argument not on any text by
Derrida but rather on Jonathan Culler's
lively but necessarily simplifying account
of deconstruction, which Habermas prefers as being easier than Derrida's own
writings. Such intellectual laziness draws
an uncharacteristically curt retort from
Derrida: `Cela est faux' (1990c: 245).
This kind of dependence on secondary
sources may be woefully unscholarly, but
it is typical of a debonair attitude towards
deconstruction on the part of certain thinkers who righteously proclaim the necessity of a classical kind of proof, while not
bothering to read, or read closely, the texts
they are attacking (see Ricoeur, 1975; I discuss this briey in Howells, 1998: 612).
Other controversies are, however, based
on differences of more substance, such as
that surrounding Derrida's apparently
idealist claim that `il n'y a pas de horstexte' (`There is nothing outside the text')
(1967b: 227; 1972a: 364). It is true that
Derrida later adds `il n'y a pas de hors
contexte' (`there is nothing outside the
context') (1990c: 252), which he says
means much the same, but rather than
being mutually illuminating the further
paradox may merely muddy the waters.
In this case, perhaps, Derrida's statements
cannot be defended on the grounds that
they are limpidly clear if carefully read.
However, the fact remains that in context


neither statement is particularly difcult

to understand. In the rst place, the `text'
itself has a very special meaning for
Derrida: it is what in modern literature
has replaced the `book' and its connotations of totality and full meaning. The
`text' evokes rather fragmentation, its
woven texture implying heterogeneity
and, Derrida suggests, `a tissue of traces'
(1967c: 429). The text does not refer to or
reect a pre-existing world (its referent, or
the `real'), but rather forms part of a vast
nexus of meaning and reference. `Il n'y a
pas de hors-texte' is far from indicating a
kind of idealism of the text: on the contrary, Derrida's position is more subtle
and more complex. Since, as he showed
in his work on Husserl, there is no presence pre-existing the sign, similarly
`there is nothing before the text, there is
no pretext that is not already a text . . . If
there is no ``hors-texte'', this is because
generalized graphics has always already
begun' (1972a: 364). In other words, the
written text is neither a closed totality
nor a reection of a more real external
world, it is necessarily open to the broader
text of which it is part:
What is happening in the current upheaval is
a revaluation of the relationship between the
general text and what used to be considered, in
the form of reality (historical, political, economic,
sexual etc.), the simple, referable exterior of
language or writing, whether that exterior was
envisaged as cause or simply as accident.
(Derrida, 1972c: 126)

And indeed, this is similar to the view

Derrida attributes to Baudrillard when an
interviewer mentions Baudrillard's claim
that the Gulf War did not take place. It is
not a matter of denying the reality of death
or suffering, Derrida argues, but rather of
recognizing the role played by the media,
and especially television, in the manipulation of information and the construction of
simulacra (1996: 889). To an extent, and
certainly in the imaginations of many
avid TV watchers, reporting the war took
over from and replaced the events themselves, substituting for the thousands of
Iraqi deaths an image of dened and
memorable visual sequences. Derrida


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

concludes rmly, however, by afrming

against Baudrillard's boutade that the war
did take place, `cette guerre a eu lieu', not
because he imagines Baudrillard really
thinks otherwise, but because he believes
that the consequences of Baudrillard's
apparent evacuation of the real are more
noxious than those of the simplications
involved in any at, polemical, `realistic'
statement of fact.
And this preference for clarity over
nesse has increasingly become Derrida's
hallmark in recent years, as he demonstrates the condence to choose political
good above philosophical sophistication.
It is as if the philosophical battles have,
to an extent, been already fought, and in
some cases won, and the current task is for
Derrida to use his extraordinary powers
of analysis in more urgent practical
domains, political, social, and juridical.
The ethics and politics of deconstruction
are, of course, a matter of considerable
controversy, and notoriously hard to
determine. Accused by the right of iconoclasm and irresponsibility and by the left
of encouraging inactivity by rendering
political action unjustiable, Derrida's
work nds no favour either with the
militant anti-obscurantism and arguably
anti-intellectualism of centrist liberal
thinkers. However, Derrida's work is
increasingly explicit in its ethical and political positions, and far from simply
eschewing dogmatism and prescription,
as might be expected from any selfrespecting deconstructionist, Derrida in
fact makes a series of philosophical interventions in issues as diverse and as practical as the legacy of Marxism, the
question of Judaism and the State of
Israel, the military use of scientic
research, abortion, euthanasia, AIDS,
the politics of drug-trafcking, and the
status accorded to animals. Derrida's
own political positions have become,
then, in recent years, increasingly public,
but always within the context of a nely
argued and frequently impressive deconstructive analysis of the issues.
In the late 1980s Derrida faced the difcult and delicate task of responding to the

violent political controversy surrounding

one of the most inuential precursors of
deconstruction, Martin Heidegger, and
one of its best-known exponents outside
France, Paul de Man, who was a personal
friend of Derrida's. Both Heidegger and
de Man were accused of fascist/Nazi sympathies, though their cases were very different in degree, and unlike Heidegger, de
Man had made clear during his lifetime
his abhorrence of fascism and totalitarianism, and was not able to answer for (or
indeed abjure) his early, anti-Semitic
newspaper writings, since they were
only discovered posthumously. The episode is itself well-known, certainly in
France, since it was used by Derrida's
opponents as an occasion to discredit
deconstruction by associating it with the
shady politics of its friends and ancestors.
Derrida's response was to attempt to
dissociate himself from the taint of fascist
Heidegger or de Man by an overhasty dismissal of them. In the case of Heidegger,
which arose rst, Derrida approached the
issue through an examination of what the
German philosopher calls the Geist, or
spirit, and showed how the fortunes of
that term, studiously avoided in early
and late Heidegger, but present in the
infamous Rectorial Address in the mid1930s, mirrored Heidegger's own uctuating attitude to the most fundamental
questions concerning the status of the
human. In the case of Paul de Man,
Derrida's approach was somewhat different as he tried to understand how de Man
could have entertained ideas which seem,
50 years later, so collusive with fascist
ideology. The main argument concerns
the ambiguity and complexity of de
Man's political positions during the war,
but despite his concessions to de Man's
youthful insouciance, Derrida's conclusions are sombre as he forcefully dissociates himself and deconstruction, as well as
the de Man he knew so well, from the
offensive anti-Semitism of the juvenilia
in question. He is, however, at pains to
stress his own refusal to condemn a man
who is now dead, and whose mature

Jacques Derrida

Moralistic condemnation of someone no
longer in a position to defend himself
seems to Derrida to participate in the
very logic it is condemning (1988: 221),
and the same criticisms may be made of
the confused attempt to tar deconstruction
with the brush of fascism. Derrida takes
the opportunity to pose the very fundamental question of what underlies the
apparently widespread determination to
discredit deconstruction. Why, Derrida
asks, do we witness such hostility to a
mode of analysis which attempts precisely
to `deconstruct the foundations of obscurantism, totalitarianism or nazism, of
racism and of authoritarian hierarchies
in general?' (1988: 224):
Why do people not understand that the exercise of
responsibility (theoretical and ethico-political)
demands that nothing should be excluded a priori
from deconstructive questioning? For deconstruction is, in my view, the very implementation of
that responsibility, especially when it analyses
the traditional or dogmatic axioms of the concept
of responsibility. Why do people feign not to see
that deconstruction is anything but a nihilism or
a scepticism, as is still frequently claimed despite
so many texts which demonstrate the opposite
explicitly, thematically, and for more than twenty
years? Why the accusation of irrationalism as
soon as someone asks a question concerning
reason, its forms, its history, its mutations? Of
anti-humanism as soon as a question is raised
concerning the essence of man and the construction of the concept `man'? I could multiply
examples of this sort, be it a matter of language, of
literature, of philosophy, of technique, of democracy, of all institutions in general etc. In short,
what are they afraid of? Who are they trying to
frighten? (Derrida, 1988: 141)

Derrida's main contribution to social theory may ultimately be the way he forces
us to reect on these questions which
strike at the heart of some of our most
cherished and disavowed prejudices.
References in the chapter are to the
French texts. Translations are my own.
Biographical information is drawn from
Derrida and Bennington (1991).


Derrida, J. (1962) Introduction and translation of E.

Husserl L'Origine de la geometrie. Paris: PUF; Origin
of Geometry (Husserl): Introduction. (Trans. John P
Leavey, Jr.) Lincoln and London: University of
Nebraska Press (Bison Books), 1989.
Derrida, J. (1967a) La Voix et le phenomene. Paris: PUF;
Speech and Phenomena, and Other Essays on Husserl's
Theory of Signs. (Trans. David B Allison.) Evanston,
IL: Northwestern University Press, 1973.
Derrida, J. (1967b) De la grammatologie. Paris: Editions
de Minuit; Of Grammatology. (Trans. Gayatri
Chakravorty Spivak,) Baltimore, MD: Johns
Hopkins University Press, 1976; 6th printing, 1984.
Derrida, J. (1967c) L'Ecriture et la difference. Paris:
Editions du Seuil; Writing and Difference. (Trans.
Alan Bass.) London and Henley: Routledge and
Kegan Paul, 1978; repr. 1981.
Derrida, J. (1972a): La Dissemination. Paris: Editions
du Seuil; Dissemination. (Trans. Barbara Johnson.)
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, and London:
Athlone Press, 1981.
Derrida, J. (1972b) Marges: de la Philosophy. Paris:
Editions de Minuit; Margins: Of Philosophy.
(Trans. Alan Bass.) Brighton: Harvester Press,
Derrida, J. (1972c) Positions. Paris: Editions de
Minuit; Positions. (Trans. Alan Bass.) London:
Athlone Press, 1987.
Derrida, J. (1973): L'Archeologie du frivole: lire
Condillac. Paris: Galilee. The Archeology of the
Frivolous: Reading Condillac. (Trans. P Leavey, Jr.)
Lincoln and London: University of Nebraska
Press (Bison Books), 1987.
Derrida, J. (1974) Glas. Paris: Galilee; Glas. (Trans. John
P Leavey, Jr and Richard Rand.) Lincoln:
University of Nebraska Press, 1986.
Derrida, J. (1976) Eperons. Les styles de Nietzsche.
Venice: Corbo e Fiori, (quadrilingual edition);
Paris: Flammarion, 1978; Spurs: Nietzsche's Styles.
(Trans. Barbara Harlow.) Chicago, University of
Chicago Press, 1979 (bilingual edition).
Derrida, J. (1980a) La Carte postale: de Socrate a Freud
et au-dela. Paris: Aubier-Flammarion; The Post Card:
From Socrates to Freud and Beyond. (Trans. Alan
Bass.) Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1993.
Derrida, J. (1980b) `En ce moment meme dans cet
ouvrage me voici', in Francois Laruelle (ed.),
Textes pour Emmanuel Levinas. Paris: Editions
Jean-Michel Place; repr. in Psyche: inventions de l'autre. Paris, Galilee, 1987.
Derrida, J. (1983) `The time of a thesis: Punctuations'
(Trans. Kathleen McLaughlin), in Alan Monteore
(ed.), Philosophy in France Today. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Derrida, J. et al. (1985) La Faculte de juger. Paris:
Editions de Minuit.
Derrida, J. (1987a) De l'esprit: Heidegger et la question.
Paris: Galilee; Of Spirit: Heidegger and the Question.
(Trans. Geoffrey Bennington and Rachel Bowlby).
Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1989.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

Derrida, J. (1987b) `Lettre a un ami japonais', in

Psyche: inventions de l'autre. Paris: Galilee; `Letter
to a Japanese friend' (Trans. David Wood and
Andrew Benjamin), in Peggy Kamuf (ed.), A
Derrida Reader: Between the Blinds. London and
New York: Harvester, 1991.
Derrida, J. (1987c) Psyche: inventions de l'autre. Paris:
Derrida, J. (1988) Memoires: pour Paul de Man. Paris:
Galilee. Memoires: for Paul de Man. (Rev. edn, Trans.
Cecile Linsay, Jonathan Culler, Eduardo Cadava
and Peggy Kamuf.) New York: Columbia
University Press, 1989.
Derrida, J. (1989) ```Il faut bien manger'' ou le calcul
du sujet', Confrontations. Apres le sujet QUI VIENT,
20: p. 91114.
Derrida, J. (1990a) Memoires d'aveugle: l'autoportrait et
autres ruines. Paris: Louvre, Reunion des Musees
Nationaux; Memoirs of the Blind: The Self-Portrait
and Other Ruins. (Trans. Pascale-Anne Brault and
Michael Naas.) Chicago and London: University of
Chicago Press, 1993.
Derrida, J. (1990b) Du droit a la philosophie. Paris:
Derrida, J. (1990c) Limited Inc. (Introductions and
Trans. Elisabeth Weber.) Paris: Galilee. `Limited
Inc. abc. . .', Glyph, 2 (1977). Baltimore and
London: Johns Hopkins University Press, pp. 162
254. Reprinted in Limited Inc., trans. Samuel Weber
and Jeffrey Mehlman. Evanston, IL: Northwestern
University Press, 1988; repr. 1990.
Derrida, J. (1990d) `Donner la mort', in L'Ethique du
don. Jacques Derrida et la pensee du don, Colloque de
Royaumont, December 1990. (Ed. J-M Rabate and
M. Wetzel). Paris: Metailie-Transition, 1992.
Derrida, J. (1991a) Donner le temps 1: la fausse monnaie.
Paris: Galilee; Given Time 1: Counterfeit Money.
(Trans. Peggy Kamuf.) Chicago and London:
University of Chicago Press, 1992.
Derrida, J. (1991b) L'Autre Cap; suivi de la democratie
ajournee. Paris: editions de Minuit.
Derrida, J. and Bennington, Geoffrey (1991c) Jacques
Derrida. Paris: editions du Seuil.
Derrida, J. (1992) Points de suspension. Entretiens.
Paris: Galilee. Points. . .: Interviews 19741994. (Ed.
Elisabeth Weber, Trans. Peggy Kamuf.) Stanford,
CA: Stanford University Press, 1995.
Derrida, J. (1993a) Spectres de Marx: l'etat de la dette, le
travail du deuil et la nouvelle Internationale. Paris:
Galilee. Specters of Marx: The State of the Debt, the
Work of the Mourning and the New International.
(Trans. Peggy Kamuf, Introduction by Bernd
Magnus and Stephen Cullenberg.) London and
New York: Routledge, 1994.
Derrida, J. (1993b) Passions. Paris: Galilee.
Derrida, J. (1994a) Force de loi: le `fondement mystique de
l'autorite'. Paris: Galilee. `Force of law: the
``Mystical Foundation of Authority'''. (Trans.
Mary Quaintance), in Drucilla Cornell, Michel
Rosenfeld and David Gray Carlson (eds.),

Deconstruction and the Possibility of Justice. New

York and London: Routledge, 1992.
Derrida, J. (1994b) Politiques de l'amitie; suivi de l'oreille
de Heidegger. Paris: Galilee; Politics of Friendship.
(Trans. George Collins.) London: Verso, 1997.
Derrida, J. (1995a) Mal d'archive: une impression freudienne. Paris: Galilee. Archive Fever: A Freudian
Impression. (Trans. Eric Prenowitz) Chicago and
London: University of Chicago Press, 1996.
Derrida, J., Avtonomova, N. S., Podoroza, V. A. and
Ryklin, M. (1995b) Moscou aller-retour. Paris:
Editions de l'Aube.
Derrida, J. (1996a) ```Il courait mort'': salut, salut.
Notes pour un courrier aux Temps Modernes', Les
Temps Modernes, 587: 91114.
Derrida, J. (1996b) La Religion, Seminaire de Capri
sous la direction de Jacques Derrida et Gianni
Vattimo. Paris: Editions du Seuil.
Derrida, J. (1996c) `Remarks on deconstruction and
Deconstruction and pragmatism. London and New
York: Routledge.
Derrida, J. (1996d) Resistances: de la psychanalyse.
Paris: Galilee.
Derrida, J. and Steigler, B. (1996e) Echographies: de la
television. Paris. Galilee.
Derrida, J. (1997a) Adieu: a Emmanuel Levinas. Paris:
Derrida, J. (1997b) Cosmopolites de tous les pays, encore
un effort! Paris: Galilee.
Derrida, J. and Cixous, H. (1998) Voiles. Paris: Galilee.
Derrida, J. (1999) Sur Parole: instantanees philosophiques. Paris: editions de l'Aube.
Derrida, J. and Fathy, S. (2000a) Tourner le mots. Paris:
Derrida, J. (2000b) Le Toucher: Jean-Luc Nancy. Paris:

Baudrillard, Jean (1970) Pour une critique de l'economie
politique du signe, Paris: Gallimard.
Beardsworth, Richard (1996) Derrida and the Political.
London: Routledge.
Critchley, Simon (1992). The Ethics of Deconstruction.
Oxford: Blackwell.
Culler, Jonathan (1983) On Deconstruction: Theory and
Criticism after Structuralism. London: Routledge
and Kegan Paul.
de Man, Paul (1971) Blindness and Insight: Essays in the
Rhetoric of Contemporary Criticism. New York:
Oxford University Press.
Ellis, John, M. (1989) Deconstruction. Princeton, NJ:
Princeton University Press.
Giovannangeli, Daniel (1992) `La Phenomenologie
partagee: remarques sur Sartre et Derrida', Les
Etudes Philosophiques, 2: 24656.

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Habermas, Jurgen (1987) The Philosophical Discourse of
Modernity: Twelve Lectures. (Trans. Frederick
Lawrence.) Cambridge, MA: MIT Press.
Hartman, Geoffrey (ed.) (1981) Saving the Text:
Johns Hopkins University Press.
Heidegger, Martin (1967) Being and Time. (Trans. John
Macquarrie and Edward Robinson.) Oxford:
Heidegger, Martin (1990) `The Rectorial Address', in
Gunther Neske and Emil Kettering (eds.), Martin
Heidegger and National Socialism. New York:
Paragon House.
Heidegger, Martin (2000) Introduction to Metaphysics.
(Trans. Ralph Manheim.) New Haven, CT and
London: Yale University Press.
Hobson, Marian (1998) Jacques Derrida: Opening Lines.
London and New York: Routledge.
Howells, Christina (1998) Derrida: Deconstruction from
Phenomenology to Ethics. Cambridge: Polity Press.
Husserl, Edmund (1962) L'Origine de la geometrie.
(Introduction and Trans.) Paris: PUF.
Husserl, Edmund ([1931] 1967) Ideas: General
Introduction to Pure Phenomenology. (Trans. W R
Boyce-Gibson.) London and New York: Allen and
Husserl, Edmund ([1891] 1970a) Philosophie der
Arithmetik: mit erganzenden Texten (18901901).
The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff. 1970.
Husserl, Edmund (1970b) Logical Investigations, 2
vols. (Trans. J.N. Findlay.) New York: Humanities


Johnson, Christopher (1993) System and Writing in the

Philosophy of Jacques Derrida. Cambridge:
Cambridge University Press.
Kearney, Richard (1986) Modern Movements in
European Philosophy. Manchester: Manchester
University Press.
Kofman, Sarah (1984) Lectures de Derrida. Paris:
Levinas, Emmanuel (1961) Totalite et inni: essai sur
l'exteriorite. The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff.
Levinas, Emmanuel (1973) `Tout autrement', L'Arc,
special issue on Derrida; repr. in Noms propres
(Livre de Poche). Montpellier: Fata Morgana, 1976.
Levinas, Emmanuel ([1930] 1984) La Theorie de l'intuition dans la phenomenologie de Husserl. Paris: Vrin.
Levi-Strauss, Claude (1955) Tristes tropiques. Paris:
Levi-Strauss, Claude (1962) La Pensee sauvage. Paris:
Levi-Strauss, Claude (1964) Le Cru et le cuit
(Mythologiques, vol. 1). Paris: Plon.
Monteore, Alan (ed.) 1983 Philosophy in France
Today. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Mouffe, Chantal (ed.) (1996) Deconstruction and pragmatism. London and New York: Routledge.
Norris, Christopher (1982) Deconstruction: Theory and
Practice, New Accents series. London and New
York: Methuen.
Ricoeur, Paul (1975) La Metaphore vive. Paris: Editions
du Seuil.
Searle, John (1977) `Reiterating the Differences: A
Reply to Derrida', Glyph, 1: 198208.

Roland Barthes



oland Barthes (191580) was the

most celebrated post-structuralist
stylist of his generation. It was a
status he attained only after a lengthy
association with structuralism. For a decade and a half, Barthes was pivotal in the
project of trying to situate literary and cultural criticism upon a quasi-scientic footing. In works like Writing Degree Zero
(1965), Mythologies (1957), Elements of
Semiology (1965) and The Fashion System
(1967) he laid out the formal principles of
semiology, the science of signs. Semiology
was, perhaps, the high-water mark of
structuralist rhetoric. It was an approach
which promised nothing less than the
demystication of culture and communication. It was a noble but, with hindsight,
giddy, turn in the history of ideas.
From the rst, Barthes was wary of the
possibility of being conned by the project
of academic system-building. Indeed,
throughout his life he was more attracted
to the practice of writing and teaching,
than academic life per se. As he observed
on several occasions, his academic career
was, in fact, somewhat unusual. To begin
with, his rst publications appeared as

monthly newspaper columns in Lettres

Nouvelles, rather than through the conventional medium of academic journals
and conference proceedings. These brief
essays were on subjects that scarcely
gured in the academic core curriculum
of the day: washing powder ads, wrestling,
striptease, the Tour de France, the Abbe
Pierre, Poujade, the face of Greta Garbo,
Elia Kazan's On the Waterfront, the
Dominici affair (an unsolved murder in
rural France), and the evangelist Billy
Graham. Eventually, they formed the
basis for his inuential book Mythologies
(1957). Barthes added a longer theoretical
essay, `Myth Today,' to the volume, partly
to `academize' a publication which might
otherwise have seemed an amorphous
concoction. Mythologies was not a dry
academic text replete with references and
a detailed biography. Instead, Barthes
maintained a pithy, uncluttered style
which was, and remains, quite atypical
of orthodox academic writing. It contributed to the succes de scandale of the book.
Mythologies captured a wide audience
who saw in it a powerful representative
of the Nouvelle Critique developing in
social and cultural study.
Barthes was also unusual in devoting
himself to semiology when the subject

Roland Barthes

was scarely recognized by academics.

Throughout the 1950s linguistics was
dominated by functionalist models of
language in which questions of the signication and play of meaning in everyday
communication were secondary to the
causal relations between elements in the
language system. Initially, there was
scant interest in Barthes arguments from
these quarters. Indeed the orthodox functionalist Raymond Picard (1969) produced
a famously hostile attack on Barthes and
the Nouvelle Critique, accusing both of
triviality and irresponsibility.
As for sociology, the subject of popular
culture was practically a blank sheet when
Barthes started to write about myth and
consumer culture. Restrospectively, he
has been acknowledged as one of the
rst postwar writers to take popular culture seriously. Storey (1993: 77) describes
Mythologies as a `founding text' of cultural
studies. However, in the 1950s, cultural
studies had not yet been born, and
most academic departments of sociology
turned a deaf ear to Barthes's analysis.
Another example of his unorthodox
career route is that he was elected to a
prestige appointment at the elite College
de France in 1976 without holding a PhD.
The election was prompted by Michel
Foucault, with whom Barthes had a
strained personal friendship. Foucault
proposed Barthes for the specially created
chair of `literary semiology'. Barthes was
habitually difdent about his achievements in public. To be sure, he was a
famously private man in Parisian life,
who coveted solitude and orderly habits.
Yet, surely, as he mounted the podium to
give his inaugural lecture, he must have
been tempted to say more than the polite
platitudes he actually delivered, about the
unorthodox path that had led him to this
exalted position.
Barthes was born in 1915, and his father
was killed in a naval battle one year later.
He was raised by his mother. A half
brother was born out of wedlock in 1927,
which tragically led to the estrangement
of Madame Barthes from her family.
Barthes grew up in poverty. At the age of


19 he contracted pulmonary tuberculosis.

For the next 12 years he was in and out
of sanatoria, an experience which he
understandably found to be depressing
and isolating. Barthes spent much of his
twenties either alone or physically debilitated. The experience made him unusually watchful and reective. Later
critics complained of an `overinterpretative attitude' in his work (Merquior,
1986: 139). By this is meant a tendency to
see the human world as chronically coded
or riddled with sign systems. Barthes was
no Freudian, at least not in a consistent
sense. Nonetheless, he fully shared
Freud's suspicion of transparency in personal and cultural life. Both men were
besotted with the idea of hidden meanings underneath surface appearances.
Beyond all doubt, in his youth and early
adulthood, as a patient at the mercy of
powerful others, Barthes had ample time
to ponder the grammar of power in
human relations and the `naturalization'
of reality through the manipulation of
representation and meaning.
Although he held two brief school
teaching appointments during these
years, his health was never certain enough
to sustain a career. It was during a period
of convalesence in Paris in 19467 that he
began to contemplate writing two books:
rst, a commentary on the historian Jules
Michelet, and second, a work of theory on
the nature of writing in what he took to be
the stiing environment of petit bourgeois
The second project eventually became
his rst book, Writing Degree Zero.
Barthes's illness, and the genteel poverty
into which he and his family were
plunged after the birth of his half brother,
must have impressed upon him the gap
between appearance and reality. His
life-long interest in how `normality' is
constructed through sign-systems was
rooted in these experiences.
In 1947, at the age of 32, Barthes left
Paris to work in his rst full-time job as
a librarian, and then as a teacher, at the
French Institute in Bucharest. In a crackdown on Western inuence, the Romanian


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

communist government expelled all

Institute staff in 1949. Barthes left for
Egypt where he taught at the University
of Alexandria and was introduced to the
ideas on advanced linguistics of A.J.
Greimas, who was also a lecturer at the
He returned to Paris one year later to
work as an assistant in the education ofce
of the General Cultural Department in
Paris and a lexicographer at CNRS
(Centre national de la recherche scientique). In 1952 he began his regular
Nouvelles. In 1955 he transferred to the
sociology section of CNRS and moved
on to become rst chairman of the economic and social science section of the
Ecole des Hautes Etudes. The death of
his grandmother in 1956 endowed him
with a substantial legacy. In 1962 he
was appointed director of study in the
sociology of signs, symbols, and representations at the same institution. In 1976 he
was elected to his chair at the College de
France. Four years later, soon after the
publication of his exquisite book on
photography, Camera Lucida, (1920)
Roland Barthes died, after being knocked
down by a van in Paris.


Barthes's Method
His biographer, Louis-Jean Calvet (1994)
suggests that Barthes made a virtue out
of eclecticism. His early work was inuenced by the writings of Sartre, Marx,
Hjelmslev, and Saussure. But he never
become a disciple of any of them.
Instead, he practised a kind of intellectual
anerie, roaming widely across the elds
of linguistics, sociology, literature, and
popular culture, plucking ideas from the
terrain and re-arranging them to suit his
His method of writing was a literal
extension of this. Barthes habitually
made notes on index cards, led them,

and periodically shufed them until a

structure emerged. It was not structuralism by design. Barthes did not impose
structuralist logic upon his material.
Rather, he allowed structures to emerge
through accretion.
The practice resembles the cut-up technique developed by the novelist William
Burroughs during the same period.
Burroughs cut up sentences and rearranged the material to develop new meanings which propelled his writing in
unanticipated directions. David Bowie
adopted the same practice in writing
song lyrics. The most singular feature of
this method is the faith it places in the
liberating effect of chance.
Barthes's method also embraced chance
and contingency. His research was rarely
exhaustive. With the exception of Elements
of Semiology, which might be thought of as
a callow book in Barthes's oeuvre, he never
sought to situate himself in relation to
existing paradigms or schools of thought.
His structuralism was generally practised
rather than theoretically elucidated.
Sometimes he enjoyed great analytical
success. His book On Racine (1963) is
widely regarded as a landmark of structuralist method in literary criticism. In
contrast, The Fashion System (1967),
which Barthes struggled to perfect over
several years, is generally regarded to be
a failure. Barthes's elaborate analysis of
`the vestimentary code' is seen as
laboured and unconvincing. It fails to
grasp, let alone account for, the two main
characteristics of fashion, namely the
appeal of individuality and the pressure
for constant change.
What is structuralism, and what was
Barthes's relation to structuralist method?
Structuralism posits a systematic and
exhaustive interrogation of language and
culture. It derived from Saussure's proposition that articulation is informed,
and ultimately governed, by the structural
system upon which it is based. Saussure
presented this system in linguistic terms.
He distinguished three dichotomies:
langue (language) and parole (speech),
synchrony and diachrony, and signier and

Roland Barthes

signed. Langue is the underlying system

upon which communication is founded,
and parole is articulation itself. Synchrony
refers to the system of language at any
given moment, and diachrony to changes
in the development of the system. The
signier refers to the acoustic or graphic
element of articulation, and the signied, is
the mental concept typically associated
with it.
Structuralism posed a radical challenge
to both common sense and analytic philosophy. It dismissed essentialist notions
of truth and reality. Indeed, Saussure
proposed that the individual units of
language are arbitrary in the sense that
they derive from custom. Meanings are
to be understood as effects of the host
sign system in which articulation occurs.
Classical structuralism exhibits none of
the concern with individuality and style
that marks all of Barthes's work. For
example, one of the most famous examples
of the application of structuralist method
in the social sciences is the anthropological
work of Claude Levi-Strauss. Levi-Strauss
(1966) dedicated himself to uncovering
the generative grammar of mythical
thought. He believed that an underlying
structure unites the myths, rituals, oral
traditions, kinship systems, and modes
of symbolic representation between outwardly different cultures. His method
therefore seeks to reveal the shallowness
of form and the depth and unity of
Interestingly, as early as Writing Degree
Zero, Barthes advocated individuality as
the dening mark of the author. He
comprehended this in somatic terms, as
deriving from the biological body of the
author, the unique corpus of opinions and
attitudes. To consolidate the point, he distinguished between language, style, and
writing. Language, he proposed, is simply
the natural order of meanings unied by
habit. It is the `boundary' or the `horizon'
which literature and criticism must transcend if it is to be `noticed'. Style, he
continued, is the imagery and vocabulary
which ultimately spring from the body.
They are the representations of the


writer's personal experience and the

matrix of the events which have shaped
him or her. Crucial to the argument is
the proposition that writers have no
choice in the style of their body of knowledge and attitudes. These matters emerge
from the matrix of culture in which the
writer is implicated by virtue of birth. In
this sense it is correct to posit a fatalistic
structure in writing, since no writer can
choose the origins or circumstances of
his or her birth. However, Barthes refuses
to allow what classical structuralism
would propose, which is that writers are
devoid of choice, since they merely reect
the values of the structural matrix in
which they are rooted. His notion of
writing emphasizes the `individuality'
and `commitment' of the writer.
Yet at the same time, Barthes is concerned to deny the inference that writers
are free spirits. He contends that they have
no power over the effects of their writing
on society. There are traces here of a neoDurkheimian comprehension of society as
the ultimate `social fact', which possesses
priority, externality, and constraint over
individual intentionality and behaviour.
Barthes's discussion of writing appears
to reinforce the Leavisite argument that
the writer occupies a heroic role in
challenging the conventions of language
and style. However, his insistence on the
pre-eminence of the social structure
repudiates the inference. There is an
undoubted tension here, which recurs
throughout all of his writing.
During his schooldays and terms of illness, Barthes's friends and fellow patients
predicted that he would become a novelist.
His literary and cultural writing reveal
him struggling to nd a voice through
criticism. It is not a natural voice. He
showed no remorse for discarding it
after the poetic turn to post-structuralism
in the 1970s. Yet this most prima facie condent of critics was ill at ease with the
prospect of nally revealing himself
through an imagined work of ction. A
Lover's Discourse (1977a) and Camera
Lucida (1982) adopt ctional and poetic
techniques yet remain anchored in the


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

tradition of criticism. While Barthes

speculated about writing a work of ction,
and shared with friends this intention,
he died before the ambition could be
With S/Z (1970), Barthes appeared to
recognize that his affair with structuralism had run its course. Henceforward,
the subjects of his publications switch
track freely. S/Z is itself an apocalyptic
`Sazzarine'. Barthes divided the 30-page
novella into 561 elements (or `lexia'). He
distinguished ve codes to facilitate
understanding the story: hermeneutic
refers to questions of interpretation; seme
refers to the system of allusions, metaphors and connotation; symbolic, refers
to the network of symbolic oppositions,
such as light and shade, hot and cold;
action refers to the details of the narrative
content; reference refers to the network of
cultural codes relating to places, events,
personalities, stereotypes, and so on. All
of the hydraulics of orthodox structuralist
analysis seem to be here. Indeed, Barthes's
identication of the plurality of codes may
be interpreted as constituting a renement
of structuralist literary criticism.
However, no sooner does Barthes set
out his stall, than he destabilizes the
expectations of the reader. For example,
he disarms structuralist rhetoric by noting
that the semic code is uneven and untrustworthy (1970: 19). He describes the lexias,
which are initially adduced as the principal critical organizing principle in the
study, as devices to `interrupt' the text
so as to deny cohesion (1970: 13, 15). He
suggests that the structuralist principle of
uniformity should be replaced by a new
principle of difference which represents the
fecundity and play of language. Narrative
itself is attacked as a seductive code which
lulls the reader into docile submission.
Barthes rounds upon the act of reading
and calls upon readers to become creative
agents in elucidating the text.
Perhaps Barthes was inuenced by the
auteur school of French cinema. In an
essay written in the same year that S/Z
was published, Barthes (1970, reprinted

in Barthes, 1986) describes the method

used to analyse `Sarrasine' as reading the
book in `slow-motion'. At about the same
time, the leading auteur Jean Luc Godard
insisted that lms needed to have a beginning, a middle, and an end, but not necessarily in that order. S/Z is the equivalent in
literary and cultural criticism of this argument. Barthes seeks to break with the
received, bourgeois style of reading
which presupposes the primacy of the
author, a linear narrative, and symmetry
between character and plot. In his hands
the text becomes a maze of meaning:
dazzling, seductive, unstable, unravelling
in unforeseen perspectives. Above all,
Barthes celebrates the `play' of meaning
and the `joy' of reading as a creative agent.
Following S/Z, he embarked, consecutively, upon discussions of the signworld of Japan, the almost erotic joys of
language and interpretation, the mentality
of the lover, the qualities of the writer
Sollers, and the magic of photography. In
each case, his work followed an idee xe
which he explores for pleasure rather
than for the sake of academic integrity.
Textual hedonism is the main thread
linking Barthes's writing in this period.
For all the weight he placed upon the
corporeal body of the writer he writes
almost exclusively about words and their
role in representing and refracting meaning. He never shows the slightest interest
in testing his ideas through empirical
or comparative analysis. Surprisingly,
although he contends that the function of
myth is to render what is in fact a historically specic construction into an unalterable, taken-for-granted, natural `given' of
life, he never seriously tries to assemble an
historical perspective to demonstrate the
origins and evolution of the process. To
be sure, he scorns `the reality effect' of
history, pointing to the `imperious
warrant' of historical science (1986: 127).
For Barthes, the `rational' exposition of
history is merely an `imaginary narration',
the principles of which are no different
from the epic, the novel, or drama. In a
passage which both thrillingly reveals
the exhaustion he now felt with orthodox

Roland Barthes

structuralism, and conveys his sense of

liberation with post-structuralist method,
Barthes writes:
The critical aspect of the old system is interpretation, i.e. the operation by which one assigns to a set
of confused or even contradictory appearances a
unitary structure, a deep meaning, a `veritable'
explanation. Hence, interpretation must gradually
give way to a new discourse, whose goal is not
the revelation of unique or `true' structure but the
establishment of an interplay of multiple structures: an establishment itself written, i.e. uncoupled
from the truth of speech; more precisely, it is the
relations which organize these concomitant structures, subject to still unknown rules, which must
constitute the object of a new theory. (Barthes,
1986: 154)

Interestingly, Barthes hardly ever refers

back to his earlier work. Even in the pronounced structuralist phase of his early
writing, there is little sense of the intrinsic
properties of an entire system of thought
evolving. After S/Z (1970), each book is a
new adventure.
S/Z is generally interpreted as the start
of the post-structuralist phase in Barthes's
thought. In it he abandoned the quest for a
quasi-scientic understanding of literature and culture. Under the inuence of
Jakobson, Benveniste, Lacan, Kristeva,
and the Tel Quel group, he now explored
the `happy Babel' of intertextuality (1975).
As against Saussure, he reconceptualized
language as an `open network' where
meanings are structured but do not obey
laws of closure (1977b: 1267). The very
commitment to this principle can be interpreted as playful, for it is a blatant contradiction. Structure without closure is
reminiscent of Stuart Hall's (1986) advocacy of `Marxism without guarantees' . It
attempts to retain the authority of structuralist reasoning while simultaneously
denying the sine qua non of structuralist
Concomitant with it was a new, consuming passion for the play of meaning,
the `incessant sliding of the signied
under the signier' (Lacan, 1977: 154)
and the plurality of the text. Gradually,
Barthes (1977b) abandoned the notion
that the authorial voice or the sign system


possessed pre-eminence over articulation.

He maintained that the reader plays a
creative part in re-aestheticizing and redening texts. Following Foucault (1970)
whose antihumanism now announced
`the death of man', Barthes (1977b)
referred to `the death of the author'. A
Lover's Discourse (1977a) is organized
alphabetically, so as to overcome both
the implication of a pre-eminent authorial
voice and to deny the base/superstructure
dichotomy of structuralism. The effect is
to radically decentre the relationship
between the author and text as the focus
of literary and cultural criticism. The
reader and consumer emerge as fertile
agents, husbanding meaning out of the
cultural object in ways which are unforseen by the author. The text itself becomes
a seed-bed of exploding meaning. Every
reading is a reinvention, no reading is
ever nal. The act of reading becomes
an act of conception. The idea of an endlessly conceiving text perhaps came
from Bakhtin's (1981) dialogic method
which sought to express the `polyphonic'
character of the text. In Barthes's hands it
became a crusade against structuralist and
scientic rhetoric.
True to the basically random, hedonistic
form of post-structuralist analysis, the
subjects of Barthes's writing in this period
were seldom chosen for reasons of topicality or strategy. He continued to see himself
as a socialist, but his work was never
overtly political. Calvet (1994: 165) records
that he regarded the student-worker-led
protests and occupations in Paris during
the revolutionary `moment' of May 1968
as `vulgar' and `pointless'. Similarly, he
displayed no interest in ethnic struggles
in Morocco during his year as visiting
professor at the University of Rabat
(196970). Indeed, throughout his life his
political involvement was concentrated
at a textual rather than a grounded
(material) level. Despite the antibourgeois
tone of his criticism in Mythologies, Barthes
himself exemplied solid bourgeois
values, notably in his dislike of `hysteria',
his love of calm, and his respect for good
manners and propriety.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

An obsession with style is the dominant motif of both his structuralist and
post-structuralist thought. Eventually, he
distinguished between two kinds of writing: the ecrivain, which is the instrumental,
densely conditioned prose typical of
orthodox academic and research writing;
and the ecrivant which is the more personal, idiosyncratic prose associated with
the creative writer. From the early 1970s,
the latter became Barthes's trademark.
Barthes died with an unwritten novel in
mind. Following the commercial success
of A Lover's Discourse, and his oft-stated
dislike of the conventions of academic
life, it is conceivable that, had he recovered from his injuries, he would have
turned to full time ction. At all events,
Calvet's biography implies that in the
months prior to his untimely death,
Barthes was oppressed with the thought
that his life of criticism had run its course
(Calvet, 1994: 2427). This, and the volte
face towards post-structuralism in the
1970s, has prompted some observers
to be sceptical about the depth of his
former attachment to structuralism.
Denotation and Connotation
Barthes's status as a founding father of
cultural studies and cultural sociology
resides in his application of the signier/
signied dichotomy in the study of
popular culture. Barthes took over this
tool from Saussure, but he massively
elaborated it by examining the nature of
sign systems in advertising, cinema,
television, sport, travel guides, agony
columns, science ction, celebrity, race,
food, and many other elements of popular
culture. From Barthes came the dual
message that nothing in culture was
what it seemed to be, and that all of
popular culture could be decoded. Not a
little of the appeal of this argument lay in
its reexivity. Barthes's method stood the
test of being turned upon itself to reveal
that even the author symptomizes
`naturalized' codes of communication. It
was as if Barthes had dropped a spoon
of liver salts into social and cultural analy-

sis, and unleashed a ferment of dissolving

hierarchies and melting presuppositions.
It was hugely, endlessly exciting.
Yet all indeed was not as it seemed.
Barthes himself became distressed when
his students in May 1968 taunted him
with the slogan that `structures do not
take to the streets' (Calvet, 1968: 16470).
Barthes had not yet broken with his
structuralist moorings. The students'
understanding of transcendent agency
fell foul of his somewhat prosaic belief
in the necessity of limits, imposed by
the priority, externality, and constraint
of the social order. They wanted the
world, and they wanted it now.
Similarly, despite the implication that
meaning is simply a link in the great
chain of decoding, Barthes's left-wing sentiments pointed to bourgeois class rule
as an ultimate limit in popular culture.
For Barthes it was the bourgeois power
structure that naturalized distortion in
culture and everyday life. The purpose
of distortion was to perpetuate bourgeois
domination. The roots of this standpoint
probably lie in his early reading of Marx.
Be that as it may, the attempt to fuse
Marxist structuralism with Saussure's
structuralism was rather forced.
Mounin (1977) was one of the rst critics
to observe that Barthes's application of
Saussure's dichotomy was idiosyncratic.
It will be remembered that Saussure
posited that meaning is arbitrary. For
him, the meaning of a word derives from
its position in the language chain of which
it is a part. In contrast, Barthes attributed
symbolic meaning to elements in sign
systems. That is, he read signs as carrying
an ideological payload. The classical
example is the famous analysis in
Mythologies of a Paris Match cover showing a picture of a young Negro soldier in a
French uniform saluting, presumably the
French ag. Barthes writes:
Whether naively or not, I see very well what it
signifes to me: that France is a great Empire, that
all her sons, without colour discrimination, faithfully serve under her ag, and that there is no
better answer to detractors of an alleged colonialism then the zeal shown by this Negro in serving

Roland Barthes
his so-called oppressors. I am therefore faced with
a greater semiological system: there is a signier,
itself already formed with a previous system
(a black soldier is giving the French salute); there is
a signied (it is a purposeful mixture of Frenchness and militariness); and nally there is a
presence of the signied through the signier.
(Barthes, 1957: 1267, emphasis in original)

A remarkable feature of this famous

example is the inexactitude which underpins its apparent precision. Barthes infers
that the French soldier is saluting `with
eyes uplifted' to the fold of the tricolour
(p. 126). It is an indispensable move in his
argument, because it supports his contention that the subconscious effect of the
photograph is to reinforce nationalism
and the merit of colonialism. Yet is it
not also an additional example of his
eclecticism and intellectual anerie for it
is asserted and not demonstrated through
empirical research?
Leaving that aside, one reason why the
example is frequently cited is that it neatly
encapsulates the distinction between
denotation and connotation which is at
the heart of Barthes's analysis of myth.
The distinction was originally made by
the Danish linguist, Louis Hjelmslev
(1961). Denotation refers to the factual
articulation of an idea or graphic image.
Connotation refers to the chain of representations that the idea or graphic image
signies. In the hands of Barthes, connotation becomes the instrument of ideology.
The implicit meaning of the signied
becomes the happy hunting ground of
the semiologist.
Again, it is worth noting that Barthes's
understanding of the effect of ideology
focuses upon style rather than content.
To refer back to the Paris Match cover of
the Negro soldier for a moment, what
interests Barthes is the lighting of the
shot, the `buttonholing' arrangement of
body and representation, the cropping of
the picture and, of course, the ideological
function performed in the selection of the
image as a feature cover for the magazine.
As to the roles of the photographer, editor,
and publisher, it is merely assumed that
they are ideological labourers, salaried by


the bourgeoisie, intent on presenting

language as truth. There is a critical
political economy implicit in this reading,
but it is unelaborated and untested.
Barthes leaves it to the reader to infer the
necessary connections. The whole process
by which bourgeois class rule is posited to
naturalize distortion in popular culture is
Today, many of Barthes's mythologies
read like sophisticated, self-reexive
versions of the radical nineteenth century
feuilletons of the Latin Quartier broadsheets. They are designed to disaggregate
what are taken to be the taken-for-granted
assumptions of bourgeois thought. They
do not situate themselves into a general
historical context, nor do they seek to
replace bourgeois categories. Their function is esentially critical.
Beyond all doubt, they fullled this
function in the late 1950s and early 1960s.
Anglo-American readers encountered
Barthes apparently slashing through
myths at a moment in which the homespun
platitudes of the MacmillanEisenhower
governments seemed increasingly indigestible. Barthes's method seemed to
promise liberation from the sanctimonious cold moralism of the age.
Revealingly, when Barthes attempted
to reprise the style of Mythologies in a
weekly newspaper column for Le Nouvel
Observateur in 19789, the exercise ran for
only three and a half months. Barthes's
criticism of consumer society in the
1950s beneted from a clear target (the
values of petit bourgeois culture) and
afliation to a clear alternative (socialism).
By the time that Barthes took up his
pen again, the position of intellectuals
and society was less clear cut. In the time
of Mythologies it was safe to assume
that culture and character were orientated
to the models forged under war of
liberation from the Nazi threat. Heterosexuality was posited as the dominant
and `natural' form of sexual identity;
nationalism was the dominant collective
ideology; people felt bound by their
relation to class, ethnicity, subculture and
so on.


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

By the late 1970s none of these assumptions was self-evident. Culture and
character were now recognized as polyvalent and unxed. In his later work,
Barthes (1977b) himself proposed that it
is inadmissible to read any single code
of identity, association or practice as
paramount. On the contrary, culture and
character are composed of a variety of
codes which blend and clash in constant
This seemed radical and liberating in
the 1950s and 1960s, when the governance
of everyday life seemed to be dominated
by uniform codes of behaviour. But by the
late 1970s, the question of the theoretical
formations emerging from the attack on
dominant codes was already rising to the
top of the agenda. By 1978, the empire
had already struck back, and the turn in
cultural criticism was leading to the
postcolonial, postfeminist, postsociety
positions that gained ascendancy in the
1980s and 1990s. Compared with these
developments, Barthes in the 1970s
seemed to be beating a hollow drum.
Barthes's application of Saussure's signifier/signied dichotomy was immensely
inuential. Traces of it are apparent in
Derrida's method of deconstruction;
Bhabha's (1994), Said's (1978, 1993), and
Spivak's (1988, 1990) postcolonialism; the
postmodernism of Baudrillard (1983, 1987)
and Jameson (1991) and Stuart Hall's
(1986, 1988) interest in hybridity and
diaspora. In addition, Barthes's application of the signier/signied dichotomy
established the principle that culture is
structured like a language. This has been
an important foundational element in the
development of cultural studies. Without
doubt, Barthes is a seminal gure in
modern semiology and cultural studies.
His assured prose style, and work on
codes of signication, became a role
model for a widely practised form of
cultural analysis.

But his work is also open to basic objections. Two are of note here. First, Barthes
failed to counterbalance his advocacy of
the plurality of the text with a tenable
epistemology. After S/Z, his thought
progressively exhibited symptoms of
solipsism. Because this became more
pronounced in his post-structuralist
phase, he grew increasingly divorced
from conceptualizing categories in terms
of transpersonal experience. In his College
de France inaugural lecture he surprised,
and dismayed, many in his audience, by
announcing bluntly that language is fascist
(Merquior, 1986: 159; Calvet, 1994: 217).
Barthes meant that language is ideologically impregnated and therefore, at the
subconscious level, compelled subjective
capitulation. The implication was stark:
communication could not be taken on
trust. The very categories we use to
make sense of the world are shaped by
the suffocating hand of ideology.
The best that can be said about this is
that it was a precipitate declaration. The
only pre-emptive measure Barthes identied is to develop a writerly refusal to
accept boundaries. Transcendence is
therefore restricted to episodic interludes
of `ecstacy' achieved by penetrating the
veil of received language. But this prejudged that `belonging' and `co-operation'
are exiled from the realm of human
achievement. It discounted the sociability
of human nature, and concomitant relations of trust and respect that make social
agency possible. Instead it fell back upon a
neo-Kantian view of the individual and
knowledge. History itself was reduced to
a text. Causal explanation, in the Weberian
sense of the term, is invalidated.
Although there are obvious analytical
advantages in treating history and culture
in textual terms, it is not satisfactory to
treat readings as equivalent. Napoleon
may have believed that he defeated
Wellington and Blucher at the Battle of
Waterloo in 1815, but if he did, he was
deluded. Historical events are not merely
`referential illusions' as Barthes (1986: 148)
alleges. They alter the course of common
experience. Yet without an epistemological

Roland Barthes

framework, Barthes supplied no way of

differentiating between interpretations.
His work yielded a cacophony of interpretation, but advanced no conclusions or
stable programme of research.
Secondly, what emerges most powerfully from Barthes's work is an approach
to culture which emphasized the aestheticization of everyday life. For an author
who rst made his name as a literary critic,
his concentration on the visual codes of
reference is remarkable. In successive
publications in the 1970s, he transformed
Japan into an `empire of signs'; the lover's
body became a monitor of ickering data;
and his last full-length published work
was a book about photographs.
To some extent, this interest in visual
codes is the natural response to the
media explosion that occurred in
Barthes's own lifetime. By the mid-1950s,
wartime austerity in the West had been
replaced with rampant consumer culture.
Advertising, magazines, and above all,
television, deluged consumers with a
tidal wave of visual data. Style and visual
stimulation became omnipresent, prompting some sociologists to speculate that the
human character type in industrial societies was becoming more `other-directed'.
Lowenthal (1968) anticipated the trend in
an article published towards the end of
the war. His content analysis of a sample
of popular magazines in the USA concluded that the popular role models of
American society were shifting from
work-centred personalities to consumption-centred personalities. The role-model
of desirable achievement was switching
from nineteenth century gures like
Thomas Edison, towards the icons of
1950s consumer culture, Marlon Brando,
Marilyn Monroe, and James Dean. Seen
in this light, Barthes's interest in mythologies is the natural expression of the
enlargement of the visual codes in popular culture which occurred in the decade
following the end of the war.
Yet if this development was eyecatching in Barthes's thought, it never produced a satisfactory corresponding theory
of visual culture. Barthes's semiology is


largely descriptive. It speculates on the

implicit meanings connoted by signieds.
When the discussion moves towards
questions of political economy, the
analysis becomes woolly and cliched. For
example, although he consistently targets
the bourgeoisie, his analysis is undertheorized. It amounts to little more than
a version of the discredited dominant
ideology thesis, in which the operation
of class rule is taken for granted, but
never historicized, or elucidated, through
empirical analysis (Abercombie et al.,
Perhaps one reason why Barthes's discussion of dominant class rule is so
unconvincing, is that he realized that
the consistent application of the signier/
authority per se. After semiology, critical
analysis could no longer be oriented to
the goal of replacing one class with
another, or contrasting the values of one
power formation with those of an alternative. This is because the connotation of all
denoted value was elevated to the centre
of investigation. Barthes takes an important insight, namely that meaning is interpretive, and runs with it like a hare to the
invalid postulate that collective meaning
is impossible. Transcendence necessarily
becomes an accomplishment of the individual. Moreover, since semiology teaches
that signs are unstable, transcendence
must be conditional and temporary.
Barthes explored the implications of
this in his post-structuralist writing.
While there are passages of resounding
insight in this work, there is, in general,
an absurdist quality to the work. Because
no nal interpretation is possible, literary
and cultural analysis is transformed into a
sort of relay event, in which writers operate like track-runners who pass on the
baton of interpretation, but never reach
the nishing line. Moreover, because language is posited as impregnated with
ideological connotations, the shared task
of struggling to make sense of the world
is violated.
Barthes took over and reinforced the
polarity between the individual and


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

society which classical sociology did so

much to try and transcend. In his early
work there was no need to posit language
as a structure possessing priority, externality, and constraint over articulation.
As the Chomskyan tradition makes clear,
language is a condition of human embodiment. As social beings we are equipped
with semiotic consciousness and we
have the capacity to isolate ideology and
co-operate to resist its effect. The reasons
why this consciousness is distorted are to
be found in the political economy of
society. The codes of communication are
a symptom of power, not the source of
The work of the later Barthes regarded
culture as a play form, albeit a deadly one,
since it controlled personality and behaviour through semiotic manipulation. In
some respects, his position recalls aspects
of the Frankfurt School thesis that capitalist culture is `one dimensional'. However,
Barthes never follows Marcuse (1964) in
declaring that one dimensional society is
`without opposition'. On the contrary,
he recognizes resistance, but he denes it
primarily in aesthetic terms. For Barthes,
resistance is individual pleasure. He
speaks of the `scandalous pleasure' of
what he calls atopic reading (1975: 23).
Reading here is used in the widest sense
to refer to the interpretation of cultural
codes, whether they be graphic, visual,
aural, electronic or spiritual. By `atopic',
Barthes means aesthetic interventions
which create a surplus of meaning over
the bourgeois codes which control culture.
Through creating surplus meaning, individuals problematize petit bourgeois
codes of cultural regulation because they
expose limits. This is why Barthes
described atopic reading as scandalous:
it offends petit bourgeois proprieties and
reveals cultural order to be a construct of
class rule.
Barthes never lost the desire to shock. In
the structuralist phase of his work he
argued that structure, not self, is the seat
of meaning. This was a calculated affront
to the petit bourgeois faith in the freedom
of the individual and the power of rational

communication to solve problems. In the

post-structuralist phase of his work, he
denies that meaning is possible, except
in momentary episodes of aestheticized
bliss. The very language that petit bourgeois culture uses to make sense of itself
is condemned as `fascist'. His post-structuralist work is unsatisfactory because it
fails to reveal the connections between
aesthetics and political economy.
In his last book, Barthes confessed to
a lifelong `desperate resistance to any
reductive system' (1982: 8). The paradox
is that the dichotomy between individual
and society was the reductive system that
underpinned all of his writing. By the end
of his life, Barthes could conceive of no
revolt higher, or more complete, than the
revolt into style. His mistrust of collective
formations and rational co-operative
strategies left him with no place to go
except aesthetics. The conviction that this
is sufcient to explain culture and society
is the perhaps the biggest mythology
of all.
Barthes, R. (1957) Mythologies. St Albans: Paladin.
Barthes, R. (1963) On Racine. New York: Octagon.
Barthes, R. (1965) Writing Degree Zero and Elements of
Semiology. Boston: Beacon Press.
Barthes, R. (1967) The Fashion System. London: Cape.
Barthes, R. (1970) S/Z. New York: Hill & Wang.
Barthes, R. (1975) The Pleasure of the Text. London:
Jonathan Cape.
Barthes, R. (1977a) A Lover's Discourse. New York:
Hill & Wang.
Barthes, R. (1977b) Image-Music-Text. London:
Barthes, R. (1982) Camera Lucida. New York:
Barthes, R. (1986) The Rustle of Language. Oxford:

Abercombie. N., Hill, S. and Turner, B.S. (1980) The
Dominant Ideology Thesis. London: Allen & Unwin.
Bakhtin, M. (1981) The Dialogic Imagination, Austin,
University of Texas Press.
Baudrillard, J. (1983) Simulations. New York:

Roland Barthes
Baudrillard, J. (1987) The Ecstacy of Communication.
New York: Semiotext.
Bhabha, H. (1994) The Location of Culture. London:
Calvet, L.-J. (1994) Roland Barthes: A Biography.
Cambridge: Polity.
Foucault, M. (1970) The Order of Things. London:
Hall, S. (1986) `The problem of ideology: Marxism
without guarantees,' Journal of Communication
Inquiry, 10 (2): 2844.
Hall, S. (1988) `New ethnicities', in K. Mercer (ed.),
Black Film. British Cinema. London: BFI/ICA
Documents. 2027.
Hjelmslev, L (1961) Prolegomena to a Theory of
Language. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press.
Jameson, F. (1991) Postmodernism, or, The Cultural
Logic of Late Capitalism. Durham, NC: Duke
University Press.
Lacan, J. (1977) Ecrits. London: Tavistock.
Levi-Strauss, C. (1966) The Savage Mind. London:
Weidenfeld & Nicolson.
Lowenthal, L. (1968) `Biographies in popular magazines'; reprinted as `The Triumph of Mass Idols' in


Literature, Popular Culture & Society. Palo Alto:

Pacic Books, 1961.
Marcuse, H. (1964) One-Dimensional Man. London:
Merquior, J. (1986) From Prague to Paris. London:
Mounin, G. (1977) Semiologies Des Textes Litteraires.
Athlone: London.
Picard, R. (1969) New Criticism or New Fraud?
Pullman: Washington State University Press.
Riesman, D. (1950) The Lonely Crowd. New York:
Rylance, R. (1994) Roland Barthes. Hemel Hempstead:
Said, E. (1978) Orientalism. London: RKP.
Said, E. (1993) Cultural and Imperialism. London:
Chatto & Windus.
Spivak, G. (1988) In Other Worlds. London:
Spivak, G. (1990) The Post-Colonial Critic. London:
Storey, J. (1993) An Introductory Guide to Cultural
Theory and Popular Culture. Hemel Hempstead:





ulia Kristeva was born in 1941 in

Bulgaria. She was educated by
French nuns, studied literature and
worked as a journalist before going to
Paris in 1966 to do graduate work with
Lucien Goldmann and Roland Barthes.
While in Paris she nished her doctorate
in French literature, became involved in
the inuential journal Tel Quel, and began
psychoanalytic training. In 1979 she nished her training as a psychoanalyst.
Currently, Kristeva is a professor of linguistics at the University of Paris VII and
a regular visiting professor at Columbia
University. In addition to her work as
a practising psychoanalyst and her theoretical writings, Kristeva is a novelist.
Kristeva's work reects her diverse
background. Her writing is an intersection
between philosophy, psychoanalysis,
linguistics, and cultural and literary
theory. She developed the science of
what she calls `semanalysis', which is a
combination of Freud's psychoanalysis
and Saussure's and Peirce's semiology.
With this new science Kristeva challenges
traditional psychoanalytic theory, linguistic theory, and philosophy.

Kristeva's goal is to bring the speaking

body, complete with drives, back into
philosophy and linguistics. In one of her
most inuential books, Revolution in Poetic
Language, she criticizes both Husserlian
Phenomenology and Saussurean linguistics for formulating theories of the subject
and language that cannot account for the
processes through which a subject speaks.
There are two ways in which Kristeva
brings the speaking body back into
theories of language. First, she proposes
that bodily drives are discharged through
language. Second, she maintains that the
structure or logic of signication is
already operating in the material body.
On Kristeva's analysis language is in the
body and the body is in language.
Kristeva's most inuential contribution
to philosophy of language has been her
distinction between the semiotic and the
symbolic elements of signication. All
signication is made up of these two
elements in varying proportions. The
semiotic element is the organization of
drives in signifying practices. It is associated with rhythms and tones that are
meaningful parts of language and yet do
not represent or signify something.
Rhythms and tones do not represent
bodily drives; rather bodily drives are


discharged through rhythms and tones.

The symbolic element of language, on
the other hand, is the domain of position
and judgment. It is associated with the
grammar or structure of language that
enables it to signify something. This
symbolic element of language should
not, however, be confused with Lacan's
notion of the Symbolic. Lacan's notion of
the Symbolic includes the entire realm of
signication, while Kristeva's symbolic is
one element of that realm.
The dialectical oscillation between the
semiotic and the symbolic is what makes
signication possible. Without the symbolic, we have only sounds or delirious
babble. But without the semiotic, signication would be empty and we would
not speak. The semiotic provides the
motivation for engaging in signifying
processes; we have a bodily need to communicate. The symbolic provides the
structure necessary to communicate.
Both elements are essential to signication. And it is the tension between them
that makes signication dynamic. The
semiotic both motivates signication and
threatens the symbolic element. The
semiotic provides the negativity and the
symbolic provides the stasis or stability
that keeps signication both dynamic
and structured. The semiotic makes
change, even structural change, possible.
In addition to proposing that bodily
drives make their way into language,
Kristeva maintains that the logic of signification is already present in the material
of the body. Once again combining
psychoanalytic theory and linguistics,
Kristeva relies on both Lacan's account
of the infant's entrance into language
and Saussure's account of the play of signiers. Following Freud, Lacan maintains
that the entrance into language requires
separation, particularly from the maternal
body. Saussure maintains that signiers
signify in relation to one another through
their differences. Combining these two
theses, it seems that language operates
according to principles of separation and
difference, as well as identication.
Kristeva argues that the principles or


structures of separation, difference, and

identication are operating in the body
even before the infant begins to use
She calls the bodily structures of separation the `logic of rejection'. For Kristeva
the body, like signication, operates
according to an oscillation between
instability and stability, or negativity and
stases. For example, the process of
metabolization is a process that oscillates
between instability and stability, between
incorporation/identity and separation/
differentiation: food is taken into the
body and metabolized and expelled from
the body. From the time of birth the
infant's body is engaging in processes of
separation; anality is the prime example.
Birth itself is also an experience of separation, one body violently separated from
another. The bodily operations of separation and incorporation prepare the way
for differentiation and identication
necessary for signication.
Part of Kristeva's motivation for
emphasizing these bodily separations
and privations is to provide an alternative
to the Lacanian model of language acquisition. Lacan's account of signication and
self-consciousness begins with the mirror
stage and the paternal metaphor's substitution of the law of the father for the desire
of the mother. On the traditional psychoanalytic model of both Freud and Lacan
the child enters the social or language
out of fear of castration threats. The child
experiences its separation from the maternal body as a tragic loss and consoles itself
with words instead. Paternal threats make
words the only, if inadequate, alternative
to psychosis. Kristeva insists, however,
that separation begins prior to the mirror
stage or Oedipal situation and that this
separation is not only painful but also
pleasurable. She insists that the child
enters the social and language not just
because of paternal threats but also
because of paternal love.
Kristeva criticizes the traditional
account because it cannot adequately
explain the child's move to signication.
If the only thing that motivates the move


% #% &'#  ( #) * # (

to signication is threats and the pain of

separation, then why would anyone make
this move? Why not remain in the safe
haven of the maternal body and refuse
the social and signication with its
threats? Kristeva suggests that if the
accounts of Freud and Lacan were correct,
then more people would be psychotic. She
maintains that separation also must be
pleasurable and this explains the move
away from the maternal body and into
signication. Just as the separations
inherent in the material of the body are
pleasurable, even if they are also sometimes painful, so too the separations
that make signication possible are
pleasurable. The logic of signication is
already operating in the body and therefore the transition to language is not
as dramatic and mysterious as traditional
psychoanalytic theory makes it out
to be.
Kristeva's alternative account of the
infant's entrance into the social and
signication complicates both the traditional psychoanalytic accounts of the
paternal function and of the maternal
function. In addition to the Freudian
or Lacanian father of the law, Kristeva
develops what she calls the `imaginary
father'. The imaginary father provides
the loving support necessary for the
child to leave behind the maternal body.
Kristeva argues that the paternal threats
are not enough to encourage the infant
to leave the maternal body. Moreover,
paternal threats cannot work as a counterbalance or compensation for the abjection
of the maternal body necessary in order to
enter the social. Kristeva maintains that
individuation requires what she calls
`abjection'. The most powerful location
of abjection in the development of any
individual is the maternal body. In
Powers of Horror, Kristeva describes
the abject as that which calls borders
into questions; and in an individual's

development the maternal body poses

the greatest threat to the border of the
For Kristeva, before the mother can
become an object for the infant, she
becomes an abject. Through this process
of abjection the infant nds the maternal
body disgusting, if still fascinating, and is
able to leave it behind provided that it has
support from a loving imaginary father. It
is only by leaving the maternal body that
the infant can enter the realm of signication through which they can subsequently
take the mother as an object. Still within
the phase of abjection, prior to the distinction between subject and object, the infant
struggles with separation. Abjection is the
process through which the infant overcomes its identication with the mother.
The male child can later eroticize the
abject maternal body in order to love a
woman by splitting the disgusting abject
body from the fascinating abject body.
The female child, on the other hand, too
closely identies with the maternal female
body to split the object and instead splits
herself by identifying with the abject
maternal body. This is why in Black
Sun Kristeva calls feminine sexuality a
melancholy sexuality. Within heterosexist
culture a woman can neither eroticize the
abject maternal body nor leave it behind.
Kristeva maintains that instead the
maternal body becomes a `Thing' locked
in the crypt of her psyche.
Unlike Freud and Lacan, who attribute
language acquisition and socialization to
the paternal function and ignore the function of the mother as anything other than
the primary object or part object, Kristeva
emphasizes the importance of the
maternal function in the social development of individuals. She insists that
there is regulation and structure in the
maternal body and the child's relationship
to that body. Before the paternal law is in
place the infant is subject to maternal regulations, what Kristeva calls `the law
before the law'. While in the womb the
foetus is engaged in processes of exchange
with the maternal body that are regulated
by that body. After birth, there are further


exchanges between the maternal body

and the infant. The mother monitors
and regulates what goes into, and what
comes out of, the infant's body.
Language acquisition and socialization,
insofar as they develop out of regulations
and law, have their foundations in the
maternal function prior to the Law of the
Father of traditional psychoanalysis.
In addition to revolutionizing the
position and importance of the maternal
function in psychoanalytic theory,
Kristeva revolutionizes the paternal function. In Tales of Love she suggests that the
paternal function does not just include
threats and law. The father is not merely
the stern father of the law. Rather, she proposes a loving father, `the imaginary
father'. The imaginary father provides
the loving support that enables the child
to abject its mother and enter the social.
Kristeva describes the imaginary father
as a motherfather conglomerate. In her
scenario the imaginary father performs
the function of love. It is the child's feeling
that it is loved that allows the child to
separate from both the safe haven of the
maternal body and the abjected maternal
body; threats and laws alone do not provide this necessary support.
In Powers of Horror, Kristeva argues that
collective identity formation is analogous
to individual identity formation. She
claims that abjection is co-extensive in
both individual and collective identity,
which operate according to the same
logic of abjection. Whereas individuals
marks their difference from the maternal
body through a process of abjection,
society marks off its difference from
animals through a process of abjection.
On her analysis, however, the animal
realm has been associated with the maternal, which ultimately represents the realm
of nature from which human culture must
separate to assert its humanity. Kristeva's
analysis of the process of abjecting the
maternal as inherent in social formation
is an elaboration of Freud's thesis that
the social is founded on the murder of
the father and the incest taboo. Kristeva's
provocative reading of the incest taboo as

the operations of abjection through which

we attempt to guarantee the separation of
culture from nature is useful to cultural
theorists interested in the dynamics of
marginalization and exclusion, especially
insofar as Kristeva continually elaborates
various ways that the repressed abject
returns. The process of abjection is never
completed. Rather, like everything
repressed, it is bound to return.
Although Kristeva maintains that all
language and culture set up separations
and order by repressing maternal
authority, she also insists that this
repressed maternal authority returns in
religious rituals, literature, and art. In
fact, some of her work suggests that all
art is the result of a sublimation of the
repressed maternal relation, in other
words a form of incest. While in Powers
of Horror Kristeva does not address sexual
difference in relation to abjection, in interviews and later work, including Black Sun,
Kristeva indicates some of the ways
in which the process of abjection works
differently for males and females. We
could say that the incest taboo affects
men and women differently and therefore
the repressed maternal returns differently
in relation to men and women. Given that
men can separate from the maternal body
and enter the social, they can also return
to it through art and literature without
threatening their position within the social
order. Art and literature that expresses
what Kristeva identies as the semiotic
maternal or abject element of signication
is revolutionary insofar as it brings the
repressed maternal back into signication
and the social order. While the male
artist can access this repressed maternal
semiotic and still maintain his position
within the social order, the female artist's
return to the maternal semiotic threatens
her social position, which is always more
precarious because of her identication
with the abjected maternal body. In other
words, it is more dangerous for a woman
to articulate the excluded or repressed
maternal body in her work because as a
woman within a patriarchal culture she is
already marginal. If a woman identies


% #% &'#  ( #) * # (

with the semiotic in her work, she risks

not being taken seriously by the social
order. In terms of everyday experience,
this means that men can be more experimental than women can be in their work
and still be taken seriously.
On the other hand, women can take up
the law in revolutionary ways. Kristeva
suggests that from her marginal position
within the social order, a woman can
challenge the symbolic element of signication merely by embracing the law
or reason as a woman. When a marginal
person inserts herself into the subject position at the centre of culture, she changes
the effect of that position. This is why in
`From One Identity to an Other' Kristeva
(1980a) claims that perhaps it takes a
woman or another marginal gure to propel theoretical reason into innite analysis
of its own subject position as always a
subject-in-process (1975: 146). Women
also have a privileged access to the
maternal body through childbirth. In
`Stabat Mater' in Kristeva, 1983) and
`Motherhood According to Bellini' (in
Kristeva, 1980a) Kristeva makes the
provocative claim that the desire to have
children is a sublimated incestuous desire
for reunion with the maternal body.
While artists gain access to the repressed
maternal body through their work, the
mother gains access to the repressed
maternal body through childbirth, which
is a type of reunion with her own mother.
The repressed maternal within culture
is the luminal gure in Kristeva's analysis
of the foreigner in Strangers to Ourselves.
Ultimately it is the maternal body that
exiles leave behind and the maternal
body that as foreigners they conjure in
the imagination of the new culture. On
Kristeva's analysis, the body itself is
always a screen for the repressed maternal
body. So, any uncanniness associated with
the body points to the return of the
repressed maternal, both familiar and
unfamiliar to us. Just as she brings
the speaking body back into language by
putting language into the body, she brings
the subject into the place of the other by
putting the other into the subject. Just as

the pattern and logic of language is

already found within the body, the pattern
and logic of otherness is already found
within the subject. This is why the subject
is never stable but always in process/on
Kristeva suggests that if we can learn to
live with the return of the repressed other
within our own psyches, then we can learn
to live with others. On the one hand, living
with others confronts us with our own
otherness, the stranger within our own
identity. On the other hand, familiarizing
ourselves with the stranger within helps
us deal with the strangers in our midst.
Otherness and strangeness are the products of repression and abjection, which
set up the border of our own proper
identity both as individuals and as social
collectives. For Kristeva, there is an intimate connection between our relations
to our own psychic economies and our
relations to strangers or foreigners. In
Strangers to Ourselves, she says `to worry
or to smile, such is the choice when we are
assailed by the strange; our decision
depends on how familiar we are with
our own ghosts' (p. 289). This is because
being with others necessitates being with
our own otherness.
Xenophobia, then, is the collective analogue to individual phobia in which the
abject is excluded as threatening and dangerous in order to justify shutting it out or
killing it. Just as individuals need some
counterbalance to support abjection so
that it does not become phobia, collectivities also need some cultural counterbalance as a `rebirth with and against
abjection'. On the individual level the
counterbalance for abjection is the loving
imaginary father; on the collective level
the counterbalance seems to involve the
imagination engaged through interpretation and self-reective analysis. Kristeva
suggests that if we could acknowledge
the death drive, there would be fewer
The acknowledgment of drives is
possible only through an elaborative interpretation supported by imagination.
Kristeva argues throughout her work


that while religion, art, and literature

provide important counterbalances to
abjection through catharsis, only psychoanalysis or self-reective analysis provide
the elaboration necessary to address the
cause and not just abate the symptoms of
abjection or repression. Because analytic
discourse both discharges and interprets
semiotic forces, it can work not only as a
safety valve for repressed drives but also
a tool for altering the place of those
drives within the psychic structure.
Interpretation is crucial to changing our
relation to otherness and enabling an
embrace of the return of the repressed.
Interpretation is possible only through
imagination, which Kristeva believes has
suffered in the twentieth century.
In New Maladies of the Soul, Kristeva
suggests that contemporary Western culture is facing a attening of the psyche,
which corresponds to a lack of imagination. Our imaginations have been taken
over by two-dimensional media images
or drugs (prescription and illicit). By
substituting surface images for psychic
depth, drugs and media images close
psychic space, which is the space between
the biological and the social, the space in
which affects materialize between bodily
organs and social customs. Meaning is
constituted in this space between the
body and culture. The meaning of
words (in the narrow sense of the symbolic element of language) is charged
with affective meaning (in the broader
sense of the semiotic element of language)
through the movement of drive energy
within psychic space.
In her latest work, the two volumes on
the powers and limits of psychoanalysis
(1996b, 1997), and L'avenir d'une revolte,
Kristeva develops a connection between
imagination and revolt. Reminiscent
of her suggestion in Revolution in Poetic
Language that poetic revolution is analogous to political revolution, in her recent
work Kristeva relates the revolt necessary
for creativity and imagination to earlier
notions of political revolution. She argues
that revolutions take a different form in
contemporary Western culture; rather


than political revolutions we have moral

revolutions, both of which rely on revolts
against authority that Kristeva associates
with imagination.

Kristeva's theory of abjection has had
a signicant impact on some social and
cultural theorists. The theory of abjection
is promising in that it describes a relationship with what is not recognizable as
myself. It is limiting, however, in that
it describes that relationship as one of
exclusion, which can be overcome only
through a proper recognition and
assimilation if always only tentative
of abjection through psychoanalytic
elaboration. At one extreme, the problem
with Kristeva's notion of abjection is that
it can be interpreted to suggest that otherness is always assimilated or incorporated
into the subject or self-same. At the other
extreme, the problem with Kristeva's
notion of abjection is that it can be interpreted to suggest that exclusion and
antagonism are the only possible relations
to otherness.
For example, abjection is a central concept in Judith Butler's Gender Trouble.
Judith Butler extends Kristeva's theory of
abjection when she analyses the dynamics
of exclusion inherent in identication. In
Gender Trouble, Butler maintains that:
The `abject' designates that which has been
expelled from the body, discharged as excrement,
literally rendered `Other'. This appears as an
expulsion of alien elements, but the alien is effectively established through this expulsion. The construction of the `not-me' as abject establishes the
boundaries of the body which are also the rst
contours of the subject. (Butler, 1990: 133)

Like Kristeva's own use of abjection,

Butler's use of abjection seems at times
to make violence and exclusion a necessary part of identication and subjectivity.
If taken as standards for identication,
however, theories of abjection normalize
the most hateful and threatening kinds of
discrimination, exclusion, and oppression.


% #% &'#  ( #) * # (

If our identities are necessarily formed by

rejecting and excluding what is different,
then discrimination is inherent in the
process of identication. On the level
of individual identication, if self-identity
is formed by rejecting what is different, in
the rst instance, the infant rejects its
mother. If abjection of the mother or
maternal body is described as a normal
or natural part of child development,
then one consequence is that without
some antidote to this abjection, all of our
images of mothers and maternal bodies
are at some level abject because we all
necessarily rejected our own mothers in
order to become individuals. In addition,
as Kristeva says in Black Sun, matricide
becomes our vital necessity.
Part of my own project has been to suggest alternatives to the traditional philosophical and psychoanalytic views of
individuation and self-identity that are
built around the exclusion of otherness
and difference. In particular, as an alternative to models of the motherinfant
relationship that view the mother as an
obstacle that must be overcome in order
for the infant to become a social subject,
I endorse a model of the motherinfant
relationship that views the mother as
the rst co-operative partner in a social
relationship that makes subjectivity
On the level of social identication, if
group identity is formed by rejecting
what is different, then war, hatred, and
oppression are inevitable and unavoidable parts of social development. If
together as persons is possible, we must
reject normative notions of abjection. We
can endorse theories of abjection as
descriptions of the dynamics of oppression and exclusion without accepting
that abjection is necessary to self-identity.
If, following Kristeva, we carry the
analysis of identity on the individual
level to the group level, we can suppose
that there are ways for groups to identify,
for people to come together, without
necessarily excluding others as hostile
threats. Groups don't need to be at war

with each other in order to constitute

themselves as groups.
Even with its problems, Kristeva's
notion of abjection has been useful for
social and cultural theorists. Feminist theorists in particular have used the notion of
abjection to help explain the dynamics of
women's oppression. Although Kristeva
has an ambivalent, sometimes hostile,
relation to feminism and some aspects
of the feminist movement in France, her
approaches for feminist theory. One of
her central contributions to feminist theory
is her call for a new discourse of maternity.
In `Stabat Mater' she criticizes some of the
traditional discourses of maternity in
Western culture, specically the myth of
the Virgin Mary, because they do not
present the mother as primarily a speaking
Without a new discourse of maternity
we cannot begin to conceive of ethics. If
ethics is the philosophy of our obligations
to each other, then in order to do ethics we
need to analyse the structure of our relations to each other. And if, as Freudian
psychoanalytic theory maintains, our
relation with our mothers is the model
for all subsequent relations, then we
need to analyse our relation with our
mothers. In Western culture, however,
this relation has been gured as a relation
to nature, a relation that threatens the
social and any possibility of ethical relations. On this view the relation with the
mother is not a social relation and therefore not a model for an ethical relation. In
order to conceive of an ethical relation, we
need to conceive of a relation with the
mother as a social relation with a speaking
social being. At this point Kristeva's
theory is similar to Luce Irigaray's . But
whereas Irigaray maintains that we need
a new discourse of maternity that allows
us to imagine an identication with the
maternal body as a social relation rather
than an antisocial relation, Kristeva maintains that we need to complicate our
notion of maternity in order to separate
out the maternal body which she insists
must be abjected from the mother's


other functions as woman or feminine or

possibly even as mother.
Kristeva suggests that women's oppression can be at least partially explained as a
misplaced abjection. It is necessary to
abject the maternal body qua the fulller
of needs. But in Western culture woman,
the feminine, and the mother have all been
reduced to the reproductive function of
the maternal body. The result is that
when we abject the maternal body we
also abject woman, the feminine, and the
mother. We need a new discourse of
maternity that can delineate between
these various aspects and functions of
women. Kristeva has set the stage by highlighting and complicating the maternal
function. To view the mother's relation
to the developing infant as a function
uncouples the activities performed by
the caretaker from the sex of the caretaker.
Although Kristeva may believe that the
maternal function should be performed
by women, she does use the language of
functions to separate care-taking functions from other activities performed by
women. Woman, the female, the feminine
and the mother cannot be reduced to the
maternal function. Women and mothers
are primarily speaking social beings.
In `Women's Time' Kristeva (1993b)
identies two generations of feminism,
both of which she accuses of using
`woman' as a religious ideal. The rst
(pre-1968) feminism is the feminism of
suffragettes and existentialists. It is a
struggle over the identity of woman as
rational citizen, deserving of the `rights
of man'. The ideal `woman' contains the
same characteristics of the ideal `man' and
the struggle is to insert her in man's linear
history. The second (post-1968) feminism
is the feminism of psychoanalysts and
artists. It is a struggle against reducing
the identity of woman to the identity of
man by inserting her into his linear time.
These feminists assert a unique essence of
woman or the feminine that falls outside
of phallic time and phallic discourse.
Kristeva argues that this strategy not
only makes feminism into a religion, but
also it traps women in an inferior and


marginal position with regard to society.

She embraces a radical individualism
beyond the rst two phases of feminism
wherein each individual is considered
unique to the extreme that there are as
many sexualities and `maladies of the
soul' as there are individuals.
Like many intellectuals after May 1968,
Kristeva became disillusioned with practical politics. Kristeva's political views
and her views on politics are controversial. She maintains that political
interpretation, like religion, is a search
for one transcendent Meaning. Insofar as
they x an ideal, even political interpretations with emancipatory goals can become
totalitarian. This is Kristeva's complaint
with contemporary feminist movements.
In order for political movements to be
emancipatory, they must acknowledge
that their xed ideals are built on exclusions and persecutions. They must admit
that their ideals are illusions created in the
contexts of particular psychic struggles.
Kristeva claims that psychoanalysis cuts
through the illusions of political interpretation. She argues that she can do
more with psychoanalysis in order to
help people and enact change than she
can with practical politics. Psychoanalysis makes the ultimate meanings
and nal causes provided by political
ideals and interpretations analysable.
Psychoanalysis can disclose other meanings and nonmeanings within the one
Meaning of political interpretation.
Kristeva suggests that in this way, psychoanalytic discourses can mobilize resistance to totalitarian discourse.
Kristeva's suggestion that psychoanalysis is the appropriate discourse to
engage and diffuse social problems is controversial. How can a practice that is aimed
at individuals solve social problems? The
interpretation and self-analysis that
Kristeva claims are necessary to change
signifying structures are traditionally put
into practice on a personal and individual
level in psychoanalytic practice, a practice
available to a small minority of the world's
population. Even if Kristeva is not suggesting that everyone enter analysis, the


% #% &'#  ( #) * # (

use of psychoanalysis to diagnose social

problems may be limited. How can a
psychoanalytic interpretative diagnosis
of social problems contribute to social
change? While this question raises the
general question of the relation of theory
to practice, which is not unique to psychoanalytic theory, it also raises the more
specic question of how to bring discussions of the unconscious into the realm of
public policy and social change.
One of the central tenents of psychoanalytic theory is that revealing or interpreting unconscious dynamics in itself
affects changes in behaviour. Couple this
thesis with Kristeva's belief that the
dynamics of society operate in ways analogous to the dynamics of individuals and
we are lead to believe that psychoanalytic
interpretations alone can affect social
change. While her analysis might suggest
that there is some kind of social or collective unconscious, Kristeva never explicitly
addresses this issue. In spite of her own
applications of psychoanalytic theory to
particular social situations, there remain
many unanswered questions about
how to apply psychoanalytic theory, formulated in relation to individual and
personal problems, to social situations
and culture.
Ultimately all of Kristeva's writing
challenges traditional social theories that
presuppose an autonomous unitary subject. All of her models suggest an alternative model of ethics and politics based on
the revised split subject of psychoanalysis
that she calls the subject in process.
Ethical obligations do not originate in
laws of reason or universal principles
that transcend the subject. Rather, ethical
obligations are inherent in the process
through which we become subjects, a process that is the constant negotiation with
an other language as other, the unconscious other within, or the other out
of whom we were born. This ethics of psychoanalysis implies a politics. In Strangers
to Ourselves Kristeva describes this
implied politics as far from the patriarchal
call to brotherhood. She says that `it would
involve a cosmopolitanism of a new sort

that, cutting across governments, economies, and markets, might work for a
mankind whose solidarity is founded on
the consciousness of its unconscious
desiring, destructive, fearful, empty,
impossible' (p. 290).

/ 0 1

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uce Irigaray was born in Belgium

in 1930 and emigrated to Paris in
the early 1960s. During her time
in Belgium, she gained a Masters degree
in philosophy and literature from the
University of Louvain (1955) and worked
as a high school teacher (19569). Subsequently, she took up the post of assistant
researcher at the Fondation Nationale de la
Recherche Scientique where she worked
until she left for France. Once in Paris,
Irigaray completed a further Masters
degree in psychology (1961) and also
gained a Diploma in Psychopathology
from the Institut de Psychologie de Paris
(1962). Her rst doctoral thesis in linguistics, entitled `The Language of the
Demented', was completed at the
University of Paris X at Nanterre in 1968
and subsequently published by Mouton
Between 1970 and 1974, Irigaray taught
at the University of Paris VIII at Vincennes
and studied psychoanalytic theory at
the Ecole Freudienne. She completed her
second doctorate in philosophy at the
University of Paris VIII in 1974. This
was to become her rst major work and

constituted the source of her infamous

ejection from the Parisian academic
scene upon its publication in 1974 as
Speculum de l'autre femme/Speculum of the
Other Woman (1985a). Irigaray presented
this thesis at the Ecole Freudienne where
she had been taught by Jacques Lacan.
Her critique of Western ideas incorporated theoretical attacks on the key
positions outlined in the work of Freud
and Lacan and was consequently deemed
heretical. Irigaray was immediately alienated from Parisian intellectual circles
and her university course proposal for
the subsequent year was rejected.
It was not until the 1980s that she began
to be recognized as an important theorist
by her compatriots. In the meantime,
Irigaray continued in her post as Director
of Research at the Centre Nationale de la
Recherche Scientique in Paris, working
as part of a multidisciplinary team constituted by linguists, neurologists, psychiatrists, and philosophers. She continued
also to develop her psychoanalytic practice. In 1982, she was appointed to the
Chaire Internationale de Philosophie at
Erasmus University in Rotterdam.
During the mid- to late-1980s, she taught
at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes en Sciences
Sociales, the College Internationale de


Philosophie and the Centre Americain

d'Etudes Critiques in Paris. She has
spoken at a number of women's groups
and conferences throughout Europe and
North America and has been actively
involved with the Women's Movement
in France, participating in pro-choice
campaigns and in efforts to legalize contraception. Her work has been particularly well received in Italy: the Milan
Women's Bookstore Collective draws
heavily on Irigaray's thought, and
Irigaray herself is a regular contributor
to the newspaper of the Italian
Communist Party. In recent years, her
research has concerned itself with sexual
order of language and culture. She
continues to write and to give papers on
her theoretical ideas.
The breadth of Irigaray's work attests
to a number of inuences and sources
for her ideas. However, her refusal of the
academic convention of acknowledging
sources by using references and providing
bibliographies makes it rather difcult to
be sure of the origins of her thought.
Despite this, it is possible to trace some
of her key inuences. A former student
of Jacques Lacan, Irigaray is strongly
inuenced by psychoanalytic theories.
Her deconstructionist approach to the
key philosophical texts of Western thought
also reveals the inuence of Jacques
Derrida. Indeed, the full scope of
her engagement with philosophy encompasses a diverse range of European
thinkers including Plato, Hegel, Kant,
Nietzsche, Heidegger, Marx, and Levinas.
Irigaray has described herself as `having a
ing with the philosophers' (1985b: 150).
Her reading and critique of philosophy is
`amorous' in the sense that she does not
reject the premises of the thought she is
analysing. Rather, she attempts to use
them, to manipulate textual practices
and to seduce the texts themselves into
showing the extent to which they are
underpinned by a fundamental disavowal
of the feminine. In keeping with Lacanian
ideas about the locus of the speaking subject within the symbolic order, Irigaray is
aware that it would be impossible to begin

afresh, attempting to articulate that

which remains hidden in symbolic practice
without making use of symbolic modes of
discourse and representation. To attempt
to do so would negate the very possibility
of a feminine mode of representation
because the subject would be alienated,
outside language and incapable of enunciating her position outside symbolic
law. The amorous mode of Irigaray's
textuality is often seductive and compelling and enables the reader of her thought
to perceive the gaps within the theories
that subtend culture. Irigaray uses this
discursive style repeatedly throughout
her work and it is most clearly apparent
in those texts which engage with one
named philosopher (1991, 1999). More
recently, however, Irigaray has moved
away from a focus on gures within the
occidental intellectual scene and has
begun to examine oriental ideas such as
Buddhism. This shift in perspective
reveals the developmental aspect of
Irigaray's thought and also marks a split
in the process of her interrogation of ideas.
Whereas the great body of the early texts
engages in (often scathing) critique, the
later texts show a marked interest in a
more constructive approach to the question of the feminine and the ways in
which it may be able to speak something
of its own specicity.
The fundamental idea underpinning
Irigaray's work is the notion of the feminine as that which is disavowed within
the symbolic order of discourse and theory.
The feminine has always been little more
than the `dark continent of psychoanalysis', to paraphrase Freud in his
work on femininity. Irigaray makes clear
throughout her writings that the debt
owed to the maternal by all sociosymbolic
signifying practices and patterns of representation is repressed and unacknowledged. The feminine becomes buried
alive in the symbolic order in this context
and thus constitutes the bedrock of symbolic systems, a hidden and repressed
support structure. For Irigaray, this
repression or disavowal of the feminine
amounts to a denial of sexual difference.

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For Irigaray, symbolic patterns of representation deny the relevance of sexual

difference to the ways in which human
subjects relate to issues surrounding corporeality and (re)production. She claims
that phallocentrism has a vested interest
in subverting difference and denying its
existence insofar as it maintains a logic
that is rooted in an a priori of the same.
Subjectivity and meaning are affected by
this denial of difference which accounts
for the hierarchical nature of many social
relations and for the privileging of the
masculine term in the binaries that structure such hierarchies.
Irigaray's style is highly complex and
allusive. The extreme style of her writing
may be interpreted as an attempt to represent the excess of the feminine that goes
beyond the boundaries of representation.
She makes few references to sources for
her `citations' and she writes in a very
slippery manner. Many of her texts are
richly poetic in style and depend upon a
manipulation of typographical conventions to disrupt the traditional ow of
reading and engagement with the text.
This has led numerous commentators to
contextualize Irigaray's thought, along
with that of Helene Cixous and Julia
Kristeva, in terms of ecriture feminine. To
align the work of these thinkers, however,
is to miss the very pertinent differences
between their ideas. Irigaray is not directly
concerned with the question of writing the
body, as the scope of her engagement with
philosophical ideas reveals.

women (and men) that is rooted in the

recognition of sexual difference. The
developmental aspect of Irigaray's work
makes it is impossible to read the recent,
apparently more accessible volumes of
her oeuvre without referring back to readings of her earliest work.
Throughout her work, Irigaray avoids
prescriptive measures. Instead, she
attempts to evoke the feminine, to make
the gaps of what she is able to articulate
resonate with meaning for the readers
engaging with her thought. Despite the
change of style in her more recent publications, Irigaray's work remains highly
complex and deeply inscribed with the
processes of critique and disruption that
characterize the earlier writings. Irigaray
has stated that what she wants `is not to
create a theory of woman, but to secure
a place for the feminine within sexual
difference' (1985b: 159). Throughout her
work, sexual difference functions as the
yardstick for the analysis of sociocultural
relations. Irigaray gives no consideration
to modes of difference based on class or
race, for example. For Irigaray, woman
is specularized and commodied by
symbolic patterns of discourse and
representation. In what follows, I shall
outline Irigaray's critique of symbolic
practices before highlighting some of the
ways in which her more recent writings
strive to offer more constructive theories
of what the feminine is and how it may be
  ! "#  $$"
"%  &'


In her early work, such as Speculum Of The
Other Woman and This Sex Which Is Not
One, Irigaray employs a disruptive and
highly critical style to engage with the
theories that structure symbolic notions of
sex and gender. Latterly, her work takes
on a simpler style and has come to focus
more centrally on the need to implement
mechanisms to ensure access to a programme of civil and legal rights for

Irigaray's critique of the phallogocentric

symbolic order centres on the mechanisms
employed by psychoanalytic and philosophical theories to exclude a notion of the
feminine. Speculum Of The Other Woman
and This Sex Which Is Not One lay out a
resounding critique of the psychoanalytic
account of the acquisition of gender in
which Irigaray shows how Western philosophy has structured its account of the
subject in terms of the masculine alone.
She uses the tools of deconstruction and
psychoanalysis to turn these monolithic


theories inside out and to demonstrate

the ways in which the feminine is permanently excluded from the symbolic
processes which are at play in traditional
systems of discourse and representation.
The main consequence of this exclusion
of the feminine from symbolic discourse
is that the representation of feminine
subjectivity becomes impossible. By setting out to disrupt the symbolic practices employed within phallocentrism,
Irigaray's linguistic play allows for a
perception of the feminine that goes
beyond its denition in relation to masculine notions of subjectivity. Such an interrogation of the gaps within dominant
discourse opens up the possibility of
articulating something of the feminine
on its own terms. Let us now move on to
consider some of the central ideas in
Irigaray's writing.
($ ) * + "%
Irigaray uses the term `specula(riza)tion'
to describe how the feminine is trapped
in a mirroring function in phallocentrism.
Woman represents a reection of the
masculine to the masculine subject so
that the feminine is dened, not in its
own terms, but in relation to specically
masculine attributes such as the phallus.
For Irigaray, a logic of sameness upholds
symbolic modes of discourse and ensures
that masculinity remains dominant.
Irigaray draws a parallel between this
mirroring function and Levi-Strauss's
formulation of woman as commodity
(Levi-Strauss, 1969: 36). Here, she draws
on the idea that the masculine subject is
constructed to produce and exchange
while commodities and patterns of
exchange conrm the status of the
masculine within the symbolic order. As
commodities, women function to maintain systems of exchange by participating
unquestioningly in the processes involved.
In this sense, the feminine, becomes a
`specular' other used to speculate, a kind
of gold standard for the masculine subject.
The consequence of `specula(riza)tion'
is that women are prohibited from being


agents of exchange and are limited to acting as objects of exchange. Under these
terms there can be no exchange between
men and women because men make commerce of women not with them. Women
are circulated as signs and serve to differentiate meaning without having any
meaning of their own. The dominant
`specular' economy is thus punningly
described by Irigaray as `hom(m)osexual':
it is homosexual because of the logic of the
same that perpetuates it and Irigaray calls
it `hom(m)osexual' in order to make a pun
in French on the word homme (man).
" %
 ,' % %
Throughout the early texts, Irigaray uses
playful linguistic mechanisms to show
how the feminine is constituted as excess
and plurality. She uses the textuality of her
work as a mode of enactment of both the
feminine and its impossibility. Her efforts
to recuperate the feminine from symbolic
practices centre on her reworking of
notions of masquerade and mimesis.
Arguing that femininity is dened as
masquerade and is therefore little more
than a construct of masculine desire,
Irigaray sets out to show that mimesis of
this position allows women to take the
masquerade to its extreme. Mimesis
reveals the ways in which masquerade
exploits women. In mimicry, woman
deliberately takes on the feminine style
and posture attributed to her within dominant discourse in order to reveal the
mechanisms by which she is oppressed
and exploited. Mimesis disrupts discursive coherence by deliberately taking
on the role ascribed to the feminine in
order to draw attention to the imsiness
of its construction, and thus to seduce
dominant discourse into revealing its
repressed foundation.
Mimesis, then, is a form of deliberate
hysteria which offers women a form of
representation on their own terms.
Through mimesis, women constitute
themselves in a way that is impossible in
masquerade. Irigaray's use of (hysterical)
mimicry in her analysis of philosophy and

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psychoanalysis thus amounts to an

attempt to represent discursively something of those repressed elements of the
feminine that are concealed within the
gaps of discourse.

 %.  /& "% "# %% "%
Irigaray's work is intricately bound up
with post-structuralist linguistic theories.
As in the work of Jacques Lacan, the role
of language in the formation of subjectivity is central to Irigaray's thought and its
focus on the ways in which the feminine is
written out of language. By drawing on
psychoanalytic ideas about the constitution of the subject at the moment of recognition of the Law of the Father (which
comes with the revelation of castration),
Irigaray shows how the specicity of the
female body is consistently disavowed in
theories of subjectivity. For Irigaray, the
most important area in which to begin
to renegotiate feminine subjectivity is in
relation to the question of enunciation.
She elaborates the notion of parler-femme
(later called `the sexuation of discourse')
in an effort to construct a feminine
position of enunciation. Parler-femme is
one of the most controversial aspects of
Irigaray's work. She writes:
what a feminine syntax might be is not simple or
easy to state, because in that `syntax' there would
no longer be either subject or object, `oneness'
would no longer be privileged, there would
be no proper meanings, proper names, `proper'
attributes. . . Instead, that `syntax' would involve
nearness, proximity, but in such an extreme form
that it would preclude any distinction of identities, any establishment of ownership, thus any
form of appropriation. (Irigaray, 1985b: 134)

This remark seems almost to undo all

notions of what syntax is. However, in
many ways, this is precisely the point:
Irigaray is neither setting out to dene a
language of the feminine nor, indeed, to
create one. Her work is an attempt to
show how language (in the Saussurean
sense of langage) delimits and manipulates
what is understood as femininity. Parlerfemme draws attention to the fact that
women need to address their exclusion

from language. Irigaray does not prescribe

a mode of feminine language. Instead,
she tries to show how parler-femme
enables women to articulate their sexed
identities in and on their own terms
(par les femmes). The apparent utopianism
of Irigaray's attempts to evoke the conditions necessary for parler-femme to
become possible serves the familiar
dual purpose of effecting both a critique
of, and a (possible/utopian) way out of,
the restraining boundaries of symbolic
Another apparently utopian `technique'
used by Irigaray to evoke the feminine
relates to her attempts to formulate a
female genealogy. Closely imbricated in
the process of parler-femme, the notion of
female genealogy helps to locate the feminine in its own terms rather than within
the constricted and constricting discursive
accounts of histories that predominate
under the rule of the phallic signier.
The disavowal of the feminine has a
devastating impact on motherdaughter
or woman-to-woman relations, according
to Irigaray. With no means of autonomous
self-denition, the mother is consumed by
the maternal role. Little girls have no
image of the feminine with which to identify. The mother is subjected to the Law of
the Father and to patterns of exchange;
she gives up her father's name in order
to take her husband's name: she has no
name/identity of her own. Her role and
function within culture and society
becomes little more than reproductive.
For Irigaray, the repercussion of this is
that women have no access to a history
of their own.
More recently, the focus of Irigaray's
work has tended to relate more to the ethical relationship and status of the couple
than to issues of individual subjectivity.
Yet it remains the case that, for Irigaray,
a truly ethical relationship depends on
the `recognition' (her term from I Love To
You) of the repressed nature of the feminine within phallocentric representational
and discursive practices, and on the renegotiation of female subjectivity in these


%   & "# 0 $  ##%

Irigaray delineates an ethics of sexual difference which envisions a world inhabited
by at least two sexed identities, each of
which would respect the radical alterity
of the other/Other and each of which
would admire the irreducible difference
that such an other would embody. For
Irigaray, an ethical relationship between
the sexes would affect symbolic practice,
not only at the level of morality, but also in
terms of the ways in which civil rights are
codied and implemented. Hence the
very large degree of emphasis in the
more recent texts on the place of women
in legal and civil terms (1993b, 1993c).
Related to these ideas is the notion of
space-time. For Irigaray, woman is little
more than a space by reference to which
and in which man is able to locate himself
as a subject. Once again, woman is
trapped into the realm of the maternal
in this respect. She embodies the
place of origin for the masculine subject
and, consequently, has no access to her
own space of origin, nor indeed to any
space of her own outside the maternal
realm. Irigaray's thoughts on gendered
space-time are closely related to her
highly theoretical forays into the
realm of the divine, which is made
accessible by reference to gures of
1. "%
In Irigaray's most recent work, the trope
of mediation is extremely important. In
her work since An Ethics of Sexual
Difference, Irigaray has consistently
alluded to the importance of mediation
for the construction of an interval or
between space in which it may be possible
to situate the other as subject in its own
right. For Irigaray, mediation, in the
form of angels, or thresholds, or love,
or the placenta, is the necessary foundation upon which to build an ethical
relation between the sexes. The mediating forces she refers to help to undo
dualistic systems and attempt to posit


a new modality of subjectivity that is

grounded in the recognition of (sexual)
Irigaray's work on mediation, and especially on angels, is closely related to her
conceptualization of the divine. Irigaray
argues that women need access to a divine
form of their own creation in order to have
access to a sense of their own nitude and
mortality. In order to become a subject in
her own right, woman needs to create a
divine image that allows her to relate to
a mode of otherness and (in)nitude that
does not reside within her own body.
Moreover, Irigaray's recent turn to the
importance of love for the renegotiation
of symbolic subjectivities highlights the
way in which her work has begun to
move away from an emphasis on critique
and disruption toward an attempt to
engage otherwise with the systems she
formerly found so problematic.
 , 2 3  
Irigaray's project to elaborate a philosophy of the feminine in terms which
celebrate the specicity of the female
body and woman's experience of desire
and subjectivity, is couched in terms
which centralize the question of sexual
difference. Whilst much of what Irigaray
has to say is underpinned by a fundamental critique of the phallogocentrism
of psychoanalytic and philosophical
accounts of sexual difference, there is
also a utopian gesture implicit in her
work, which offers feminism a quite
unique vision of the future of the feminine.
Irigaray's use of psychoanalysis and philosophy as a starting point for her critique of
Western ontology has provided a focal
point for the reception of her work, especially during the 1970s and 1980s. Much of
the early analysis and critique of Irigaray's
work was premised on a relatively small
portion of her work which was available
internationally (essays from Speculum and
This Sex). The framework of this critique is
discussed below. More recently, however,


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there has been a resurgent interest

in Irigaray's work led by feminist
cultural and theoretical practitioners who
argue for the need to engage with
Irigaray's texts (Whitford, 1991; Burke et
al., 1994).
There are three positions that are commonly held in relation to Irigaray's work.
First, certain feminists have challenged
Irigaray's work as (biologically) essentialist (Moi, 1985; Plaza, 1978; Sayers, 1982;
Segal, 1987). Such critics argue that
Irigaray's work is ultimately essentialist
as it is based on a notion of feminine
specicity that is somehow grounded in
the psychic or material female body.
However, one could argue that the
critique of essentialism in Irigaray's
work does not take account of the radical
attempts made throughout her work to
posit a critique of patriarchy that
makes possible a mode of change that
has ramications for notions of gendered subjectivity. Moreover, in claiming
that Irigaray's work is ahistorical and
nonmaterialist, such accounts reveal the
extent to which Irigaray's work has been
dismissed on the basis of misreadings of
her earliest texts. As Naomi Schor
has pointed out, Irigaray is not interested
in dening `woman', but is, rather,
committed to theorizing feminine specicity in terms which consider the importance of sexual difference (Burke et al.,
1994: 66).
attempted to locate Irigaray's work as
impossible and antifeminist because
of her insistence on the alterity of the
feminine within symbolic practice
(Ragland-Sullivan, 1986). The Lacanian
critique of Irigaray as a theorist who
fails to appreciate the gravitas of positing
a feminine psyche to oppose the masculine one described by Lacan, situates
Irigaray as attempting to misrepresent
Lacan's teachings. Such a critique focuses
upon the apparently imaginary-centred
perspective of Irigaray's theory of the
feminine. Taking Lacanian ideas about
the non-existence of `(the) woman' at
face value, such accounts disavow the

ironically critical engagement with

Irigaray's work on psychoanalysis.
Thirdly, some feminist commentators
have sought to engage with the deconstructionist element of Irigaray's work in
order to expose something of the repressive mechanisms used within sociosymbolic praxis to disavow the feminine and
its position within the symbolic order
(Braidotti, 1991; Burke et al., 1994;
Connor, 1992; Fuss, 1989; Gallop, 1982;
Grosz, 1989; Schwab, 1991; Whitford,
1991a). These critics advocate the necessity to engage with Irigaray's thought
and discursive style in order to locate
her work as a `philosophy of change'.
Most notably, in this respect, feminists
such as Elizabeth Grosz and Margaret
Whitford have made important arguments in favour of reading Irigaray on
her own terms. In particular, Margaret
Whitford has suggested that:
she is proposing her work as a sort of intermediary between women, as that indispensable
third party in any symbolic relationship (which
is therefore precisely not a dual imaginary relationship), as an object of exchange, especially
between women, which we can use to avoid one
of the common impasses of attempts at a woman's
sociality: unmediated (because unsymbolized)
affects. In Irigarayan terms, it might create the
espacement or the `space between' that is difcult
to women who are required to constitute a space
for men. Her work is offered as an object, a discourse, for women to exchange among themselves, a sort of commodity, so that women
themselves do not have to function as the commodity, or as the sacrice on which sociality is
built. (Whitford, 1991a: 512)

Many of Irigaray's critics have wrestled

with her often difcult and challenging
work in an attempt to produce an understanding of her objectives that is accessible
to feminists struggling for women's rights
and for female subjectivity. The ways in
which this has been done are myriad and
complex. A number of textual theoreticians have sought to use Irigaray for
textual/political purposes (Apter, 1990;
Jones, 1981, 1985; Simpson-Zinn, 1985;
Worsham, 1991). The large majority of
this work situates Irigaray (often alongside


Julia Kristeva and Helene Cixous) in the

context of ecriture feminine. Many of the
critics who label Irigaray as a proponent
of ecriture feminine do so for two reasons.
Firstly, they highlight the very complex
stylistic processes at play in Irigaray's
work as an example of `writing the
body'. Secondly, there is a tendency to
seize upon her focus on the question of
language and the way in which it
pervades her work as a whole.
It is clear from Irigaray's work that her
interest lies not so much in the logocentric
or writing-focused elements of language,
but rather in the process of speech itself, of
enonciation in the sense elaborated by
Emile Benveniste (1971). This emphasis
on questions of enonciation highlights
the view that Irigaray does not set out
to elaborate a technique of female or
feminine writing. Her project does not
attempt to address the question of feminine desire through the written text,
but rather focuses on the importance of
seeking out ways of insinuating the
feminine into language as a speaking
Despite Joy Simpson-Zinn's claim that
`past and present struggles in the social
sphere are not ignored by French feminists, Helene Cixous and Luce Irigaray, but
the rst step toward social change is, in
their opinion, a new language, a new
text, a new vision' (1985: 78), it seems
rather more appropriate to highlight
the fact that, for Irigaray at least, written
language traps the feminine in a system of
phallogocentrism and prohibits the representation of the feminine as anything
other than virgin/mother/whore or
`the dark continent', the unseen and
unspeakable buried aspect of symbolic
practice (Irigaray, 1985a, 1985b). As
Margaret Whitford has pointed out,
aligning Irigaray with Cixous and
Kristeva as a proponent of ecriture feminine
`blurs the differences, both theoretical
and political, between the three women.
But it also reduces the complexity of
Irigaray's work to the simplicity of a
formula ``writing the body'', and conveniently ignores that Irigaray's brief


comments on women and writing in

This Sex Which Is Not One have been
made to represent more or less the
totality of her work' (Whitford, 1991b:
Recently, feminists engaging with
Irigaray's work have shown that it
consists of much more than an attempt
to `write the body' or merely to inscribe
feminine desire onto the discursive body.
The implication of this is that Irigaray's
insistence upon the need to formulate a
means of speaking (as) woman, reects a
desire to rework traditional patterns of
sexed subjectivity in order to facilitate
the production of the feminine in language and other symbolic systems.
Feminists have seized upon this and
have sought to demonstrate that
Irigaray's thought can be used as a
resource in relation to a number of disciplines and arenas including feminist
philosophy, textual practice and criticism,
psychoanalytic practice, history, law,
ethics, gender studies, and sexual politics.
Current work on Irigaray's thought sets
out to examine the roots of her ideas,
tracing her debt to theorists such as
Derrida, Foucault, and Heidegger (Burke
et al., 1994). This shift in the way that
feminists now choose to draw on
Irigaray's thought marks the acknowledgement of her struggle to highlight
`the necessity or inevitability of radical
social or symbolic transformation'
(Whitford, 1994: 29). Largely, this shift in
perspective on Irigaray's work has been
facilitated by the widespread availability
of her texts in translation, which has
enabled feminists to undertake a more
detailed reading of Irigaray's inuences
and origins. The wealth of material
being produced in this context indicates
a depth of potential in this return to
Irigaray's work as text and the scene of
writing surrounding her work will inevitably shift and evolve. The extent of the
debate around Irigaray's thought is yet
to be fully realized, yet it is undoubtedly
the case that her work will continue to
inuence the directions forged by feminist
interrogations of culture.


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6 17 82

Irigaray, Luce (1985a) Speculum of the Other Woman.
(Trans. Gillian C. Gill.) Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1985b) This Sex Which Is Not One.
(Trans. Catherine Porter.) Ithaca, NY: Cornell
University Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1991) Marine Lover of Friedrich
Nietzsche. (Trans. Gillian C. Gill.) New York:
Columbia University Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1992) Elemental Passions. (Trans. Joanne
Collie and Judith Still.) London: Athlone Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1993a) An Ethics of Sexual Difference.
(Trans. Carolyn Burke and Gillian C. Gill.) London:
Athlone Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1993b) Je, tu, nous: Toward a Culture of
Difference. (Trans. Alison Martin.) New York and
London: Routledge.
Irigaray, Luce (1993c) Sexes and Genealogies. (Trans.
Gillian C. Gill.) New York: Columbia University
Irigaray, Luce (1994) Thinking The Difference: For a
Peaceful Revolution. (Trans. Karin Montin.)
London: Athlone Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1995) Speech Is Never Neuter. (Trans.
Gail Schwab.) London: Athlone Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1996) I Love To You: Sketch for a Possible
Felicity in History. (Trans. Alison Martin.) London
and New York: Routledge.
Irigaray, Luce (1999) The Forgetting of Air in Martin
Heidegger. (Trans. Mary Beth Mader.) London:
Athlone Press.
Irigaray, Luce (1999) To Be Two. (Trans. Monique
Rhodes and Marco F. Cocito-Monoc.) London:
Athlone Press.

Irigaray, Luce (1975) `Schizophrenia and the question
of the sign', Semiotext(e), 2 (1): 3142.
Irigaray, Luce (1980) `When the goods get together',
in E. Marks and I. de Courtivron (eds) New French
Feminisms. Amherst: University of Massachusetts
Irigaray, Luce (1985) `Is the subject of science sexed?',
Cultural Critique, 1: 7388. (Trans. Edith Oberle.)
Irigaray, Luce (1994) `Ecce Mulier? Fragments', in P.J.
Burgard (ed.), Nietzsche and The Feminine.
Charlottesville and London: University Press of
Irigaray, Luce (1995) `The question of the other', Yale
French Studies, 87: 719.

Apter, Emily (1990) `The story of I; Luce Irigaray's
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Jean Baudrillard



ean Baudrillard, born in July 1929, is

still very actively engaged in writing.
His book L'Echange Impossible was
published in September 1999, following
his book of photographs called Car
l'Illusion ne s'oppose pas a la Realite which
was published at the end of 1998. He was
born in Reims but little in fact is known
about Baudrillard's early life other than
that he specialized in languages and
taught German at a lycee for about 10
years. His earlier academic career had
not been smooth; he has referred somewhat obscurely to his `Rimbaud period'
when he abandoned his studies for a
time. He failed to get into the Ecole
Normale Superieur, and failed the important gateway examination, the agregation.
In the 1966 he nally got into University
teaching at the age of 37 `by an indirect
route' (1993a: 19). In the 1960s he became
known as a brilliant and prolic translator,
German to French, translating the major
works of Peter Weiss, Brecht, Marx and
Engels, and the anthropologist Wilhelm
Baudrillard's rst published essays
were written for Les Temps Modernes in

19623 on literary themes. Leaving

German literature, Baudrillard moved
towards sociology under the teaching
rst of Henri Lefebvre and then the decisive inuence of Roland Barthes. From
1967 Baudrillard was associated with the
journal Utopie which was close to, though
without organizational ties with, the situationist movement. From 196973 he taught
sociology at Nanterre and was attached to
the Centre d'Etudes des Communications
de Masse, at this critical time of the confrontation with McLuhan in media theory.
From 1975 he worked with Virilio for
about 15 years on the journal Traverses.
From the same year he began to teach regularly in America. The journals he edited
were not associated with any political
organization but were engaged in radical
and critical cultural theory on the radical
left. Later he was to say that the years `at
Nanterre in the sixties and seventies were
some of the best years. Once these were
over we mourned' (1993a: 20). He presented his doctoral habilitation at the
Sorbonne in February 1986. He retired
from the University in 1987.
Baudrillard's formation was therefore
decisively inuenced by his wide reading
of German literature, philosophy, and
social theory in a meeting of Marxist and

Jean Baudrillard

Nietzschean traditions. But clearly the

inuence of French themes can be
seen in the importance of Rimbaud and
the Situationists and structuralism
(Durkheim and Mauss to Barthes). This
marks out the distinctive character of
Baudrillard's engagement which in the
1960s and early 1970s was essentially an
engagement from within Marxism, with
the radical emergence of the system of
objects and the consumer society. He
then made a radical shift towards an
anthropological position against modernism (including Marxism, psychoanalysis,
and structuralism). It was from this perspective that he launched his famous confrontations with writers such as Michel
Foucault (Baudrillard, 1987), and cultural
critiques such as his famous attack on the
architecture of the Pompidou Centre
(`Beaubourg Effect', in 1994b), political
critiques of the French Socialist and
Communist Parties (1985), and in the
end an attack on the continued viability
of the social sciences themselves with his
thesis of the `end of the social' (1983).
Some of these essays made a considerable
impact when they became available in
English in the Foreign Accents series
edited by Lotringer, who also published
a long interview with Baudrillard called
`Forget Baudrillard' in 1987. His challenge
to modernism led him in this period to be
identied as the father of a theory of postmodernity and a new postmodernist
style, and even baptized `pimp of postmodernism' (Moore, 1988). Baudrillard's
relation to postmodernism has, however,
always been critical and nuanced, and
only in the 1990s has his position nally
become clear. But one further strand in
Baudrillard's work should be noted.
From his earliest writings it has been evident that he always had time and space to
write on politics and political ideas. The
collection entitled La Gauche Divine:
Chronique des Annees 19771984 (1985) contains Baudrillard's analysis of the failure
of the Socialist and Communist Parties to
confront the problems of the post-1968
political conditions, and Ecran Total
(1997b) collects Baudrillard's writing for


the left-wing newspaper Liberation over

the decade from 1987, including his provocative analysis of the Gulf War (1995).
Two theses dominate these political
analyses. The rst is that proletarian
revolutionary transition is no longer on
the agenda in Western societies, and
secondly this new situation is one of
involution within the boundaries of the
West with real `events' occurring only on
the fault line (e.g. Bosnia) of this culture
(see Cushman and Mestrovic, 1996).
Baudrillard's work draws on a large
number of sources. He himself has identied Nietzsche as the most important and
long lasting. It is evident that there is a
continuing engagement with and use of
modern literature, from Kafka to Ballard,
as well as those key theorists he identied
in texts of the 1970s: Marx, Mauss and
Bataille, Saussure, Freud, Benjamin, and
McLuhan. Because his work has entailed
the development of a theory of mass communications he is today often linked with
the work of Paul Virilio with whom he
worked closely for many years on the
journal Traverses. However, Baudrillard's
writings in the 1990s were no longer
aimed at providing a `critical analysis' of
Critiques such as Virilio's, like Marxism
itself, remained trapped, he argues, within
Baudrillard, in an ultimate challenge,
tried in various ways to develop `fatal
theory': philosophers have always interpreted a disenchanted world, the point is
to make it even more enigmatic. Some of
his interests here have led him to adopt
some of the paradoxical formulations of
recent science with the result that he
has been identied as one of the contemporary `intellectual impostures' a
description he has, with usual wit,
embraced enthusiastically.
Thus Baudrillard seems particularly
sensitive to alterations of the current
cultural and political conjuncture. His
writing is reexive to a high degree,
not only with respect to the changing
effectiveness of concepts and ideas, but
also to the forms of the interventions


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

themselves. Facing the defeat of the May

1968 revolutionary movement, his writing
has sought to rework radical theory in
a way which comes to terms with the
cultural, technological, and political
forms of the `advanced' societies. For
many radicals of the 1960s the option has
been either to retrench into a fundamentalist Marxism, or to adopt the framework of the consumer society with
qualications (to make it more democratic, more ecologically aware, and to
promote within it a postmodern form of
multicultural tolerance). In this context
Baudrillard provides an alternative
which regards these variations as disastrously involuted forms of a ressentiment
culture in which a secret strategie du pire
holds sway. He is therefore an outsider
whose ideas are profoundly at odds with
contemporary progressive opinion, be it
socialist, liberal, or feminist.
Baudrillard is probably best known for his
association with postmodern consumer
culture, and his theses on simulation and
hyperreality, yet these ideas have been
widely misunderstood and misinterpreted. A key document must therefore
be Baudrillard's own summing up of
his work available in his Habilitation presentation called L'Autre par Lui-meme
(published in English as The Ecstasy of
Communication, 1988b). This text is crucial
for a reading of Baudrillard's work up to
the mid-1980s although his thinking has
gone through further important developments. In his own account he refers to his
rst major set of writings, on the object
and consumer society, as critical structuralism. By the mid-1970s and especially
with the book Symbolic Exchange and
Death (1993b) he had worked through a
critique of structuralism and Marxism to
a position based on symbolic exchange
theory. Yet by the early 1980s he had redened his position as one based on the
force of pure seduction: `there is no longer

any symbolic referent to the challenge of

signs and to the challenge through signs . . .
The object itself takes the initiative or
reversibility. . . Another succession is
determinant' (1988b: 80). In the mid
1990s he was to move further in this
trajectory to one based not on symbolic
but impossible exchange.
One way of reading these positional
changes can be made by adopting the
image used by Baudrillard in his habilitation presentation, that of the double spiral
of the symbol and the sign. His rst set
of writings on the object and consumer
cultures can be seen therefore as an analysis of the semiotic cultures of Western
societies for which, in his writings in the
1970s, he produced a famous genealogy of
their simulacral forms (1994b). Over the
last 15 years he has been working on
a `fourth order' of this genealogy which
corresponds to a theory of postmodernity.
There is, however, little if any direct
critical commentary on this phase of
Baudrillard's work, for most discussion
has concerned the theory of the `third
order' concerning mass media, mass
society, and hyperreal phenomena
Baudrillard's writings in the period
197590 were focused on the other side
of the spiral, that of the symbol, with
essays on symbolic exchange, seduction,
fatal strategies, and evil. In the 1990s he
has been writing on what he has termed
`the perfect crime', the vast transformation of Western cultures under the impact
of communication technology towards the
virtualization of the world.
Thus Baudrillard's writing is made
up of a number of projects which are
coherently articulated within the idea of
the double spiral (on one side the symbol,
the other the sign). This makes it possible
to identify four sets of theoretical writing.
The rst concerns the quasi-Marxist
analysis of the commodity-object, signexchange, and consumer society. The second concerns the theory of symbolic orders
and symbolic exchange and has a strong
anthropological character entailing a radicalization of the notion of the gift and

Jean Baudrillard

death. The third set comes back to focus

on contemporary culture but is no longer
framed in a base-superstructure model.
The new analysis relies on the concepts
of seduction, fate, and evil drawn from
anthropological perspectives and employing them, even methodologically, alongside a surprising survival from French
sociology, the concept of pathology
(1993c). The fourth set concerns the transition of cultures from third to fourth order
simulacral forms from a position identied
as that of impossible exchange. There is a
movement in Baudrillard's work from that
of critical structuralism and with Marxism
with its desire to expose the alienated
workings of the modern social system
and its culture, to a theory of the object as
pure sign and to a mode of writing which is
more poetic, `fatal', enigmatic, fragmented, embracing the paradoxes produced in the advanced sciences. In
Baudrillard's terms, then, the very evolution of the sign in Western cultures through
the genealogy of its various simulacral
forms produces its own ironic self-destruction. This situation provides new opportunities and calls for a metamorphosis in
the form of radical theory.
A key element of Baudrillard's work
has therefore been a crucial contribution
to the theory of the symbolic order (with
notable studies of fate, evil, seduction, and
death) which has required a refusal to
make a discipline boundary between
anthropology and social theory, indeed
to confront sociology with radical anthropology (Genosko, 1998). In Baudrillard's
early writing the simple ambivalence of
the symbol was contrasted with the univocality of the sign. The radicalization of
his theory became clear in his view that
the symbolic order is not simply primordial, but is the superior form, even
as it is destroyed by modern rationalities.
It is characterized in Baudrillard's view by
four signicant features. First, as opposed
to the sign it does not organize itself on
the reality principle, since the world is
apprehended as fable and narrative.
Secondly the apprehension of time is nonlinear, nonaccumulative, nonprogressive,


since the narrative and the gift are both

fatal and reversible. Thirdly, other cultures are not apprehended as belonging
to a homogeneous world system of differences but in the order of radical otherness,
since the symbolic order (based on the
rule) is not parallel to the culture of
human rights (based on law). Fourthly,
the relation to the order of things is not
possessive, the symbolic order is articulated on metamorphosis in ritual time
and space. What is new in Baudrillard's
version of the symbolic order is that it
is active, dynamic, strategic, based on
challenge of radical illusion.
It is clear that this view of `primitive
culture' reverses many of the assumptions
found in the work of sociologists like Max
Weber who sometimes refer to these cultures as superstitious, passive, conservative, and traditional. It is one of the
many `banal' illusions of the semiotic cultures that they are progressive, active,
accumulative. Baudrillard gives Weber's
analysis of rationalization a radical
Nietzschean reading through an analysis
of simulacral forms. With the emergence
of the idea of the real world, and the ideology of the real (Majastre, 1996: 209), there
emerges the cultures of the sign (in the
Saussurean manner: signier/signied/
referent-real). This introduces a split in
the semiotic cultures between the representation of the meaning, say of death
and the idea of real biological death.
This split becomes a generalized premise
of the existence of all phenomena subject
to objective and scientic investigation. It
introduces the dimension of the difference
between the true and the false, but
also disturbs illusion by introducing the
opposition between the real and the
simulacrum. According to Baudrillard's
genealogy, a rst order of simulacra can
be seen in the representations of the
body and the world in the Renaissance
period: in the model of the human automaton, in trompe l'oeil forms, and represented in media like stucco. With the
explosive Industrial Revolution and the
beginnings of mass production, a second
order of simulacral forms comes into


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

existence as mass reproduction: the

human is represented in crude mechanical
robotics, and mass (re)production of commodities in new media like plastic. But this
second order is still based on the principle
of utility where production and reproduction arise from an original hand-crafted
object. This gives way with the implosive
advent of the consumer society to signexchange and the emergence of the
`system of objects' a society dominated
by computerized mass media images.
Baudrillard's challenging theory is that
this affects all domains: relation to the
order of things is not only subject to
mass media, particularly televisual,
mediation (which shifts cultural phenomena into the hyperreal), but also with the
matrix revolution (which shifts simulacra
into simulational forms). The transition
from this third order to fourth order
simulacral forms arrives with the full
long-term impact of the information revolution, which leads to the greatest rupture
of all, an apocalpyse which occurs without
protagonist or victim, neither explosive
nor implosive: the postmodernization
and the virtualization of the world.
It is important to note that the genealogy of simulacral forms is not a simple
historical procession. It is clear that
Baudrillard thinks in terms of variations
in the way each culture evolves in relation
to his theoretical genealogy. In the case of
America for example, it is important that
Baudrillard insists on its specicity. First
Baudrillard situates his own analysis as an
ironic recasting of what he calls de
Tocqueville's paradox, that is, the way
the American world tends both to
absolute insignicance, and to absolute
originality, a `genius in its irrepressible
development of equality, banality, and
indifference' (1988a: 89). And, secondly,
he adopts McLuhan's thesis, which
suggests that American culture is
characterized by the absence of second
order simulacra. In other words it has a
completely different form of modernity
from that of Europe. It is evident from
the Cool Memories series more generally
that even within Europe Baudrillard's

analyses do not homogenize. The cultures

of France, Italy, Spain, Germany, for
example, are all treated as individualities
in their own right. Given that Baudrillard
has become one of the most travelled
theorists, and not only maintains the
practice of the journal but also the camera
(his photographs also maintain this view
of cultural individuality, 1998c), any reading of Baudrillard's contribution must
come to terms with the great diversity of
the forms of his work (which includes a
volume of poetry, 1978) and the vast range
and detail of his analyses.
It seems clear that there are three or four
major themes in Baudrillard's work which
have had considerable theoretical impact.
The rst is a consequence of his early
writings on the object and sign-exchange.
These ideas have been taken up principally by those wishing to develop a
line of Marxism in opposition to structural
and particularly Althusserian theory,
which continues to stress the importance
of modes of economic production and
Marx's theory of capitalism. Baudrillard,
along with many others of course, suggested that the evolution of consumer
society was a crucial development
rendering orthodox Marxism obsolete.
Baudrillard's attempt to theorize signexchange as an evolution of commodity
exchange received considerable critical
attention. The notion of hyperreality, particularly in relation to American culture,
however was bitterly contested by
Marxists in particular because it suggested that successful political class
struggle and dialectical progression was
no longer possible. Baudrillard's second
theme, that of the superiority of symbolic
exchange as a revolutionary principle, led
him into an opposition to vitually all the
major critical theorists. His third theme,
that of the analysis of seduction, fatal
strategies, and evil, as secret forms
within the semiotic cultures themselves,

Jean Baudrillard

gave rise to great misunderstanding and

further notoriety. He now became the
object of praise or vilication as `high
priest of postmodernism'. The theory of
the fourth order simulacral forms has
fallen on deaf ears. Even among the
sympathetic recent commentaries and
discussion of Genosko, and Butler, there
is great resistance to accepting that any
such transition has occurred in
Baudrillard's analyses, or if it has it does
not deserve to be taken seriously. For these
writers Baudrillard remains above all a
theorist of third order forms.
The rst theme, that of the theory of the
object system, has been the subject of an
important and continuing debate.
Baudrillard's fusion of critical structuralism (Baudrillard's System of Objects and
Roland Barthes's The Fashion System were
contemporaneous), with a situationist
perspective on the society of the spectacle
(Debord), was nevertheless conceived in a
problematic in which Baudrillard could
still refer to capitalism and class struggle.
His debt to Lukacs and Marcuse is clear in
his critique of that form of Marxism which
insisted on the universality of the concept
of mode of production and the principle of
overdetermined contradiction. The most
important aspects of Baudrillard's position lay in the fact that it contested the
ahistorical analysis of capitalist society
and at the same time confronted the economic reductionism of much of orthodox
Marxism. Baudrillard's critical discussion
of Marxism also picked up the point that
its major thinkers had already pointed to
radical shifts in the nature of capitalist
organization. He pointed particularly to
Lenin's notion of the importance of
the transition from market to monopoly
capitalism. Baudrillard gave this transition an extremely radical interpretation:
it initiated the determination of social relation by the semiotic code (1975). Others
have argued that Baudrillard's work
makes possible a theory of the mode of
information (Poster, 1990), or the mode
of consumption (Ritzer, 1999).
But the theory of the object as a relation
of sign-exchange pushed Baudrillard's


theorizing towards aesthetics. At one

point (1981: 185) he argued that the `object'
emerged specically with the work of the
Bauhaus. In other words the transition
from the commodity form proper towards
the object was essentially a coupling of
function (use value) with aesthetic value.
This development of the analysis of the
commodity evidently departed from the
theory of reication and fetishism in
important ways. The key development
was certainly the attempt to apply semiotics rather than phenomenology to the
analysis of exchange. Clearly implicit in
Baudrillard's interpretation is a reliance
on Saussure's denition of the sign, but
Baudrillard was already theorizing the
sign and sign-exchange as historically
associated with a particular stage of the
development of capitalism when it was
discovered that Saussure had also worked
on but not completed a study of anagrams
in classical literature of antiquity
(Starobinski's, 1979, book on this was
rst published in 1971). With this clear
opposition between the anagram and the
sign Baudrillard was able to provide content to his previously somewhat gestural
notion of the ambivalence of the symbol
(Genosko, 1994, 1998).
Certainly the more orthodox Marxists,
particularly the Althusserians, rejected
both the structuralist methodology of
this style of analysis and the general
theory of consumer society. Baudrillard's
analysis was a contribution to a form of
analysis which had much wider resonance
(parallels are to be found in writers as far
apart as Marcuse, Debord, Barthes, and
Lyotard), an analysis which suggested the
moment of proletarian revolution had
passed and that with mass consumerism
a new form of social integration had been
evolved within the capitalist order.
Althusserian Marxism posed the question
in terms of ideological state apparatuses
and the new crisis of capitalist legitimation
in the universities in conditions of a
world-wide crisis of capitalism, but still
held to the view that the determinant
and revolutionary contradiction was that
between capital and labour. Baudrillard's


Profiles in Contemporary Social Theory

reply to this idea was to suggest that reinforcing the economic and political organization of the proletariat in the new
conditions of mass consumerism actually
facilitated the neutralization of the proletariat as a class within late capitalist
forms, since the principal site of integration was then not confronted (1985).
Baudrillard's second thematic, which
was a logical development of the theory
of the symbol, led to a radicalization of
the notion of the symbolic order
(Genosko, 1998). It seems that the preparation of this line of analysis was to some
extent inspired by the work of Foucault
on madness. Baudrillard's genealogy of
forms of relations to the dead parallel's
Foucault's analysis of the role of sequestration and asylums in the genealogy
of madness. For Baudrillard, death is a
fundamental symbolic form. His analysis
follows closely its genealogy as revealed
in relation to the body. He charts carefully
the movement from early forms in which
the dead body is retained in the group to
those in which there is a hierarchy of those
who pass, under the control of priests, to
heavenly immortality. His analysis of the
cemeteries or the necropolis charts the
social distance between the living and
the dead body. After this period of sequestration, the dead, like the mad, are subject
to the vicissitudes of civilization.
When Foucault published his famous
Discipline and Punish, with its theory of
modern forms of power and surveillance,
Baudrillard regarded this as a major turning point in Foucault's work. He wrote a
stunning review of it, published as Forget
Foucault, in which he argued that
Foucault's thought itself had been
ensnared in the system of micro power
and control he seemed to be analysing
(1987). It became evident from this
moment on that Baudrillard was to regard
structuralism, post-structuralism, and
deconstructionism as complicit with the
code of modern consumer culture and
unable to confront it. Baudrillard also
lamented Saussure's own failure to
develop the opposition to the sign in an
adequate theory of the symbol, just as he

lamented Freud's and Lacan's universalization of a particular form of the Oedipal

complex, and Levi-Strauss's failure to
develop a symbolic theory of the savage
mind (1993b). Lyotard retorted that
Baudrillard had produced yet another
myth of the primitive.
Baudrillard, however, did not stay
within the ambit of the theory of symbolic
exchange for very long, at least according
to the habilitation presentation. In the three
works of the next period, that is Seduction,
Fatal Strategies, and The Transparency of
Evil, Baudrillard tried to demonstrate the
power of fatal over critical theory. The
logic of this change of position seems
determined by the very loss of revolutionary agency by social forces. No longer
aligned with the active alienated subject,
Baudrillard concluded that power of
agency had passed to the side of the
object. What was strikingly effective
in Baudrillard's return to the analysis
of current cultures in the 1980s was his
general proposition that social checks
and balances (the ideal of liberal containment of power) and the framework of dialectical progressive development (the
ideal of revolutionary sublation) were outmoded logics, and as he himself expressed
it `our societies have passed beyond this
limit point' (1988b: 82; see Bauman, 1992).
The new situation, he claimed, was not
principally one of unremitting mass
homogenization, though this was occurring in the exemplary logic of cloning
and replication, and what he identied
as the culture of indifference and
impatience (homogenization entailed the
disappearance of the historical event:
even war could no longer take place,
1995). The dominant logic was, however,
exponential, a logic driven by the liberation of energies. Baudrillard began to
identify the emergence of extreme
phenomena against the background of
indifference. Two linked propositions
were developed at this point. First, the
fatal strategy of the object could be seen
as a form of intensication: the world was
in the grip of the delirious passion of the
object. Hyperreal phenomena were just

Jean Baudrillard

one form of this ecstatic movement of

things more than sexual in the strategie
du pire: pornography; more than fat:
obesity. But secondly, with the liberation of energies and the deregulation
of balances, Baudrillard also identied
the disintegration of boundaries. This led
to the emergence of what he called transpolitical phenomena. This process concerned not the intensication of logics,
but the intensication of indistinctions.
Thus more than sexual: transsexual;
more than historical: transhistorical;
more than aesthetic: transaesthetic; more
than genetic: transgenetic. Baudrillard
had already noted that objects were no
longer made from traditional materials
but new homogenized media like plastics.
At this juncture even the boundaries of
objects (including those of species) were
in the process of dissolution.
Some of Baudrillard's brilliant analyses
of these transitions were picked up at the
time in a somewhat bizarre way. From at
least three quite different points of view
he became identied as proposing a postmodern genre of theorizing about a postmodern condition. The rst interpretation
was developed by Jameson whose work
was decisively inuenced by Baudrillard
at this time. Jameson (1991) simply argued
that by maintaining a Marxist framework,
Baudrillard's analysis could really be seen
as accounting for the culture of late capitalism. Kellner also presented Baudrillard
as the theorist of postmodern culture and
suggested that Baudrillard was in complete complicity with this logic as revealed
by the new fatal styles of analysis adopted
(1989). Feminists such as Meagan Morris
(1988) and Suzanne Moore (1988) saw
Baudrillard's analysis of the sexual object
as deeply conservative, patriarchal, and
The nal theme in Baudrillard's work is
the theory of the fourth order simulacral
forms. Central to this theory is the continuation of the analysis of the fate of
reality, objects, and exchange. If the
world has indeed escaped the frameworks
of regulating balances, then events and
phenomena follow a delirious course in


a radically new space. Here Baudrillard

draws increasingly on the language of
the advanced sciences, particularly
where the relation of subject and object
have become problematic. The structures
of time and space are no longer Euclidean,
subject and object no longer independent.
It is as if, he suggests, for a period in the
history of the sciences, the object was
caught unawares by theory (1988b: 87).
Today the object is no longer content to
remain passive in relation to the subject.
From a world of rigorous structural determinations, the current situation is one of
radical indeterminacy of fundamental
principles and knowledge. Baudrillard's
most recent essay (1999) concerns the
aspect of exchange. In this new, `postmodern' situation, exchange itself become
increasingly difcult. In consequence he
argues, analysis must be made from a
position of `impossible exchange', recognizing the full force of the requirement for
a new kind of theory appropriate to a
world in radical uncertainty beyond the
matrix, one which deals with unique
objects, singularities.
It is now becoming clear that
Baudrillard has been trying to analyse
and theorize the fourth order since the
mid 1980s, while most commentaries
have remained stubbornly within his concept of hyperreality and the code. It is also
becoming more evident that if Baudrillard
does have a concept of postmodernity it
does not have the third order as its object.
Indeed it might well be that the break
between third and fourth order phenomena is for Baudrillard the most signicant
one and the one which mark